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The Espresso Martini Buzzes Back to Life (But Did It Ever Leave?)

Our Libations columnist discovers the caffeinated cocktail that ruled the '90s.

By Shelby Vittek | | February 4, 2022 | Appears in the February 2022 issue

As someone who came of drinking age in the new millennium, I’d never tasted an espresso martini, the creamy, caffeinated cocktail of the ’90s. That changed last summer when, out of nowhere, the espresso martini buzzed back to life.

I was fully vaccinated, but still exhausted by every social interaction. While my friends and I were eager to catch up, we lacked the energy we once had. Then we discovered a new (to us) antidote.

The classic espresso martini is made with fresh, brewed espresso, coffee liqueur (usually Kahlúa) and vodka. Shaken and strained, it’s served in a chilled martini glass, with roasted coffee beans as a floating garnish. After one sip, you perk up.

It’s attributed to London bartender Dick Bradsell, who developed it after a young model asked for “a drink that will wake me up and then [mess] me up.”

Since its creation, other drinks that mix uppers (caffeine) with downers (alcohol) have trended, including the potent vodka Red Bull and Four Loko, the caffeinated malt beverage packed with the equivalent of four espresso shots. Yet the espresso martini seems to be the most appealing right now.

Part of that owes to growing interest in coffee culture during the pandemic, especially among younger drinkers. But hold on a second. “I’m not sure the espresso martini audience ever went away!” says Evelyn Ciszak, beverage director for Brasserie Mémère in Closter, which she runs with her husband, Thomas. The couple insists that high-quality, fresh-brewed espresso is key. They make their own vanilla vodka by infusing vanilla beans into the clear spirit, delivering rich flavor without sweetness.

The espresso martini is not quick to make, and not all bartenders will be thrilled when you order one—especially if it’s not on the menu. “I like making them, but a lot of bartenders roll their eyes,” says Sam Stuhler of Brick Farm Tavern in Hopewell. “Compared to a Manhattan or old-fashioned, it’s not a real fancy drink. It’s the basic drink of sophistication. But it does have its place.”

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