Thanks to rising interest in at-home bartending—plus the constant need for caffeine—this classic cocktail is getting a boost.

la colombe classic espresso martini
La Colombe

I was enjoying happy hour with some friends midweek at Soho Warehouse in Los Angeles when five o’clock rolled around and I started to get a case of the yawns. My first drink had been a glass of orange wine and I knew if I ordered another I would be headed home soon. So instead, I perused the cocktail menu before deciding on an espresso martini. My friends and I ordered a round of the coffee-based concoction, and then a second round, and by the bottom of our coupe glasses we were hooked (and wide awake). Since then I have become a serious fan of the drink and noticed them appearing on an increasing number of menus across the West.

San Francisco bartender Sean Doolan says Thriller Social Club is serving up at least 200 espresso martinis each Friday night. “The pandemic started a rise in craft cocktails and everybody become a bartender at home or wanted to be able to pick up cocktails. That’s when the espresso-tini really took off,” Doolan says. “A lot of people used to order a vodka Red Bull, which isn’t as classy, and espresso martinis are a classic cocktail that acts as a pick-me-up and also tastes great.” 

It’s only right that my first experience with an espresso martini was at a Soho House, as the cocktail gained popularity decades ago in the Soho scene of New York City. Famous bartender Dick Bradsell created the drink in the 1980s. While the cocktail would be deemed an irrefutable classic, the late ’90s came and everyone in NYC started sipping Cosmos, leaving the espresso martini on the back burner.

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But that’s changed. “We noticed more and more bartenders serving this drink using our vodka,” says Abe Stevens, founder and distiller at Humboldt Distillery, which produces an organic vodka that pairs perfectly with espresso. “To be frank, more people these days are looking to get their caffeine fix throughout the day and not just the morning.”

humboldt distillery espresso martini

Humboldt Distillery

As makers in the craft coffee scene work alongside cocktail creatives to make superior versions of the drink, we can expect the trend to last beyond the decade this time. A high-quality combination of ingredients results in a drink that offers an energy boost, gentle flavor, and subtle sweetness that cocktail fans are eager to order again.

“There’s been growing cultural interest and nostalgia in the 1990s as an era, and this was certainly a drink of that age,” Stevens says. “With the growth of high-quality coffeehouses and roasters over the years, consumers have developed a taste for premium coffee as well.”

Quality Spirits and Coffee Are Key

In Stevens’ recipe for an elevated classic espresso martini, he pairs vodka with fresh espresso and a cold brew coffee liquor for added sweetness (and alcohol content). “There are a number of variations among bartenders, but our own go-to is fairly simple and classic,” Stevens shares. “The original version may also add additional sugar, so ours may not be quite as sweet as the classic, but the biggest difference is in the quality of the spirits.”

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The coffee or espresso used is equally as important. To learn more about the best brews, I called up Nicolas O’Connell, senior vice president of sales for La Colombe Coffee, who’s been selling coffee concentrates and canned coffees in increasing quantities to make for an easy and elevated take on the classic cocktail.

“If you are making a simple espresso martini I would say our Nizza or Cold Brew Concentrate are the best. They are clean and rich, and pair perfectly with vodka,” O’Connell says.

Because coffee is still a “novelty” in the bar space, he says, mixologists are “looking for new and innovative beverages to make unique cocktails,” O’Connell says. “We’ve found that mixologists are becoming more playful with ready-to-drink coffee and cold brew concentrates.” Hence the espresso martini trend.

“The key to the espresso martini is using a strong espresso which adds to the flavor of the drink and the foam,” Doolan of Thriller Social Club shares. “If the coffee isn’t strong enough, you won’t get a good foam so using straight espresso or a cold brew concentrate is important. If we had to brew an espresso shot for every espresso martini, we wouldn’t be able to serve them as easily and in as large of quantities as we do.”

Don’t Forget About the Foam

For those trying their hand at making it at home, you’ll want to keep a cocktail shaker on hand when trying to emulate the classic. Shaking all the ingredients is what delivers an almost creamy layer of foam.

“It’s the same principle when you make espresso,” O’Connell says of the froth. “The crema is from pressure. This pressure can be re-created when a mixologist shakes the beverage. It emulsifies the molecules.”

So, give your cocktail a few hard shakes before straining it into a coupe or martini glass to ensure that latte-esque foam lands in the glass. You should also “use fresh, clean ice,” Stevens shares. “Ice can pick up flavors and aromas over time. If your ice has been exposed in your freezer for a while, you can rinse it off before using.”

And be sure you put your spirits in the fridge for a few minutes beforehand, Stevens adds. “If your spirits are too warm, they might melt too much ice when shaking and give you a watered-down drink,” the distiller says.

With these expert tips in your back pocket, plus high-quality coffee concentrates and spirits, you’ll be whipping up top-tier espresso martinis for yourself and your friends in no time. To get you started, we’ve got three recipes for modern takes on the cocktail below. 

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