James Bond ordered his martinis “shaken, not stirred.” Then there’s the dirty martini, the gibson cocktail, the vesper martini, and on and on.
This classic has encountered countless interpretations over the past century, but perhaps none so profound as the white hot, drink-du-jour, the espresso martini. It was first the cool cocktail to order 30 years ago, and has gleefully encountered a revival in the 2020s, becoming the option to order for those who want to see and be seen. Created with only three, sometimes four, magical ingredients – espresso, Kahlua, vodka and maybe a little simple syrup – the potion serves as a delicious pick-me-up for diehards needing a caffeine jolt to keep the late-night party going. Or, some say, it’s a liquor-infused elixir to liven up any breakfast event.
How much do you know about the drink that awakened a new generation of fans, hip to the concept of alcohol and caffeine in one fell swoop? Read on, martini makers of the world; a bevy of intel on society’s beverage of choice will unlock the untold truth of espresso martinis.
1 – It may have been invented by Kate Moss
Legend has it the espresso martini was first created in London by British bartender Dick Bradsell at a Soho Brasserie back in 1983, according to GQ. The renowned mixologist was asked by a supermodel – rumored to be Kate Moss – to whip up a drink to, as she said, “something to wake me up, then f–k me up.” And just like Michelangelo’s fresco of the hand of God touching Adam’s finger to create life, so too was the masterpiece we call the espresso martini born. The coffee machine in the brasserie where Bradsell worked was next to the bar, so tossing espresso in the cocktail was an easy way to mastermind a new drink.
Call it kismet. The magic formula for success regarding the espresso martini combined bartender Bradsell’s vagabond ways – working at trendy London clubs like Fred’s Club, The Colony Room Club, Soho Brasserie, The Groucho Club, The Zanzibar, The Atlantic Bar & Grill and Damien Hirst’s Pharmacy – with the U.S. cocktail craze jumping the pond to invade Britain in the 1990s. Now the espresso martini’s popularity was contagious, infecting London’s bar scene, becoming the “It” drink of the decade. Add to its success the endorsement of hip, cool models, pop stars and artists, and Cheers! You’ve got a winning drink.
2 – It has taken over America in popularity
In case you’ve been living in a commune of teetotalers and missed the trend, take notice: Espresso Martinis have overtaken Planet Earth, according to InsideHook. Yelp’s data science team reported that the rate of mentions for the caffeinated booze was up nearly 300% in the first six months of 2021 as compared to the same period three years earlier.
What’s to account for the massive uptick? Some new fans may have been born out of the surging popularity of specialty coffee. Coffee bean aficionados are discerning connoisseurs of their local roasters, down to the last coffee ground. Adding these rich and aromatic brews to a vodka concoction may take their java passion to the next level.
Another factor? The power of social media sold the thirsty citizens of America on the sexy Espresso Martini. Just take a peek on TikTok or Instagram and be deluged by images of a perfectly blended drink, a fabulous gal sipping one, or provocative takes on the basic recipe.
Another likely explanation suggests the end of the pandemic, and the country re-entering the work/life balance. According to the Washingtonian, there’s a bit of a gray area for folks who have worked remotely, blurring the line between work and play. Espresso martinis mix fuel for the day with relaxation for the evening. Booze and caffeine in one powerful punch kill two birds with one stone, especially for those who have the desire, but not the capacity, to stay awake on their nighttime jaunts.
3 – It’s not really a martini
Espresso martini fans might want to know that, technically, their go-to bev isn’t a martini at all. For traditionalists, a martini consists of gin and vermouth. They may argue it’s the “right” way to mix the iconic cocktail. Perhaps true, but since the world seems to have embraced so many new twists on the classic, rules are made to be broken.
As such, the espresso version has been firmly placed on the martini family tree. But back when Dick Bradsell thought up the potion, he dubbed it the Vodka Espresso. Vodka drinks were all the rage in that era, so behold, a star was born. According to diffordsguide.com, only later did Bradsell re-christen the potent potable to be called the Espresso Martini.
For those interested in boozy history, the 1990s was a renaissance for cocktails, and in particular, “tinis”. Bartenders used up-glasses for every drink under the sun and continually invented new “fill-in-the-blank”-tinis: the lemon drop martini, the appletini, and the chocolate martini, to name a few. The rules had been forever broken, and classic martinis – strictly with gin and a touch of dry vermouth – weren’t the only “tinis” in town. Now anything went – and the espresso martini happily joined the party, combining the rocket fuel of espresso with the festive effects of booze for a potent pop that packed a punch. We may never know the true identity of the marvelous maiden who requested the first espresso martini, but we’ll always be grateful for her innovative inquiry.
But wait – there’s more. In 1998, Bradsell achieved a bartending hat trick by re-naming the Vodka Espresso/Espresso Martini again to now be called the Pharmaceutical Stimulant, which he served while bar manager at a restaurant called the Pharmacy in Notting Hill. The term Espresso Martini stuck though, and the rest is a melodic mélange of alcohol and caffeine-fueled history.
It may come as no surprise that the Espresso Martini is one of the cocktails officially recognized by the International Bartenders Association (IBA).
4 – Some consider it a breakfast drink
Espresso Martinis – they’re not just for midnight marauding, according to myrecipes.com. Some indulgent imbibers claim it makes the perfect breakfast drink, a betwixting conundrum of caffeine, courageously contradicting the opposing effects of vodka. Miraculously, the dynamic duo of heart-starting espresso and hedonistic hootch live in harmony in an 8-ounce glass, assuring refined brunch-goers have one less decision to make. Keep your meal memorable and easy, and never again have to ask the question, “Should I order coffee or should I have a cocktail?” This boozy classic will give you the energy for several more trips to the breakfast buffet while allowing you to embrace the beauty of a lazy weekend brunch.
Don’t beat yourself up about pampering a little. According to celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, the coffee and coffee liquor elements of the Espresso Martini aid in digestion after your luxurious brunch. Don’t skimp on good digestive health; order the Espresso Martini right out of the gate.
5 – The one thing to never do to your espresso martini
It seems unfair to tell the world not to drink any beverage any way it likes, but for Espresso Martini lovers, there may be a dealbreaker. According to Bar Cabinet, it’s a big no-no to add ice to the hot espresso coffee used in the cocktail, because ice makes coffee very bitter. (All you cold-brew aficionados out there can back us up on this.) The best method to prep the caffeine portion of the cocktail is to make the espresso coffee in advance and allow it to cool naturally. The good news is, because of its slightly acidic nature, espresso coffee can be prepared ahead of time and stored in a refrigerator for several days.
Let’s review: Feel free to adjust the ingredients of an Espresso Martini to sweeten it to taste with simple syrup, brown sugar or milk, but for the love of all things espresso, let the hot coffee cool down on its own. Make your Espresso Martini better, not bitter.
6 – A lot of bartenders aren’t so crazy about them
For as beloved a drink as the glorious Espresso Martini is, bartenders are not fans, according to Grub Street. First, there’s the trendy factor. Bartenders wonder, do people really like them, or do they just want to order the “It” drink of the moment?
Familiarity breeds contempt. Some bartenders may be a bit jaded at the thought of whipping up the same cocktails night after night – and not being on the cutting edge of mixology. The Espresso Martini, let’s face it, has become mainstream.
Add to that the accessibility of ingredients. Although there are only a handful of components to the Espresso Martini, bartenders don’t generally have an espresso machine, or cooled espresso, on hand. Some Manhattan bars, however, earn bonus points for preparedness, batching their espresso ahead of time to be ready for the evening deluge. It’s not uncommon for drinkers to up and depart from watering holes that cannot accommodate their frequent Espresso Martini requests. There’s no evidence bartenders are losing sleep over it; the next round of partygoers will arrive shortly with a new order of the perennial favorite.
7 – Shake, shake, shake your martini
The right ingredients are vital for an unforgettable Espresso Martini, but just as important is the proper technique. According to Kahlua, the construction of the ultimate Espresso Martini takes less than two minutes and includes vigorous shaking. Why so? Shaking is the secret to the Insta-worthy fabulous foam atop the stunning creation. Just shake the drink’s ingredients with lots of ice for at least 20 seconds. And remember, the more you shake, the more microfoam builds up, giving you that smooth, velvety froth when you pour it into your appropriately-chilled glass.
Mini-science lesson: Shaking builds the microfoam by creating tiny air bubbles, which allows your Espresso Martini a creamier mouth-feel. You get a smooth-as-silk masterpiece with enough foam to sink a ship. Class dismissed. For bonus points, after pouring the cocktail, be sure to spoon any foam left in the shaker, adding it to the top of your drink. Voila!
As a fun side experiment, consider the type of ice you are shaking with the cocktail. We suggest you try making ice out of filtered water, for the best result. Or, better still, live on the wild side and try ice cubes made from your favorite filtered coffee, for a stronger coffee flavor.
8 – Why three coffee beans for a garnish?
The classic Espresso Martini always is garnished with three whole coffee beans atop the pillowy foam. Though versions exist with lemon peel, orange slice, or a cherry, those in the know understand there’s great significance attached to the coffee bean trio, according to NuRangecoffee.com. Such a tiny detail, but it’s chock full of meaning. The beans symbolize health, wealth and happiness. The tradition goes that when friends or loved ones drinking Espresso Martinis make a toast, they are celebrating these three blessings.
The back story is that the number three itself is very important, appearing as a symbol of faith and luck in many religions. Most notably in the Italian tradition is the Catholic Church, which embraces the number three for its closeness to the Holy Trinity. It’s not too far of a stretch to draw parallels between the Holy Trinity and the blessings of health, wealth and happiness, coming from Italian culture that draws heavily from its religious and historical foundation.
When bartender Dick Bradsell created the Espresso Martini 39 years ago, his “icing on the cake” was thoughtfully garnishing with the three beans, to boost the significance of the drink’s every detail, right down to the three beans joyfully floating atop the heavenly cloud of foam.
9 – You can buy espresso martini mixer for home
Now the glamour of the Espresso Martini is yours to embrace in the comfort of your own home. Thanks to some dynamic entrepreneurs, pre-made mixes have popped up offering the delight of this popular cocktail for the masses. It’s time to embrace your inner Dick Bradsell! Now mere mortals, not just marvelous mixologists, can strike lightning.
And the good news is there’s plenty of mixer choices readily available. According to Master of Mixes, their wonderful recipe has 80% espresso, combined with a touch of creamy vanilla to mimic the taste your neighborhood bartender may create.
Other notable versions have emerged from well-known purveyors like Sur La Table and Stonewall Kitchen. Just toss in vodka with the espresso mix, shake vigorously in a shaker with ice. It’s the shortcut to an evening of contemporary cocktails, available while casually convening on your cozy couch.
10 – Espresso Martinis… in cans and pancakes
Little did bartender Dick Bradsell know he would be starting a revolution when he whipped up that first Espresso Martini. Today, not only is the delicious cocktail a household name, but now the Espresso Martini concept has spread to all different formats. Kahlua even came out with a can of espresso-style martini elixir, infused with nitrogen. Just pop one or two (or six) in your bag when you’re off to the outdoor concert and you’ve got magnificent cocktails on the go. What will they think of next?
How about a nice stack of Espresso Martini pancakes for breakfast to go along with your Espresso Martini? According to BBC good food, the boozy breakfast dish will look as good as it tastes. The topping on the cakes includes vodka, Kahlua and espresso, so it’s legit. Or, BBC good food suggests Espresso Martini cocktail fancies for your next soiree – guests can sip the drink in one hand and nibble on the indulgent cake in the other.
And who couldn’t use a great bonbon after a lovely meal? Lolli and Pops carries delightful Bristows of Devon Espresso Martini bonbons that hit your sweet spot perfectly. The world seems to have the flavors of Espresso Martini covered from every angle.
11 – A 5-day Espresso Martini festival? Genius
We’ve got nothing but respect for the good folks in London who kept a 5-day Espresso Martini Festival going for several years running, up until the pandemic. According to Mr. Black Coffee Liquor, fans celebrated London’s most famous cocktail, and 40 of the best cocktail bars across the city served up a variety of tasty coffee cocktails throughout the 5-day festival. The event took place for three years running, kicking off with 1,000 free Espresso Martinis on opening night. Add to that Espresso Martini masterclasses hosted by Bea Bradsell, daughter of the late, great Dick Bradsell, and you’ve got a world-class event.
Another group, The House of Martinis, originally named The Espresso Martini Society, held a one-off Valentine’s Day festival in London in 2020. The group was born in 2018 with a sold-out six-week pop up bar in the heart of Soho, serving the world’s largest espresso martini menu. The House of Martinis claims to have served close to 10,000 customers and produced 80 different varieties – more than anyone else in the world. Respect!
12 – Australians are crazy about Espresso Martinis
It’s not just the Brits or Americans obsessed with the Espresso Martini. In Australia, the beverage gets top billing as the best cocktail, according to The Guardian. Once the phenomenon hit Australia, it found a fan base. In Melbourne alone, the cocktail struck a chord. As avid coffee lovers, the local population embraced the concept of booze in their coffee…or coffee in their booze. Bartenders say it’s because the beverage appeals to everyone and can fit in at any bar – a Boujie cocktail spot or a gritty rave club.
We mean it– Melbourne held their own Festival of the Espresso Martini a few years back, and tickets sold out in mere hours, causing organizers to add another day, then another, then another.
According to the Matador Network, the Espresso Martini is the best-selling cocktail in Australia, which makes sense. Aussies love their coffee – it’s a point of national pride. Add to that the delights of vodka and Kahlua, and ahhh, you’ve reached nirvana