Around midnight at my friends’ wedding a couple of years ago, at a beachside mansion near Melbourne, the party was fading. After a long day of sunning and champagning and emoting, even the professional drinkers among us were starting to wilt. But then a procession of waistcoated bartenders emerged from the kitchen, each proudly wielding a wry smile and tray of espresso martinis.
The teetering glasses of shaken espresso, vodka, coffee liqueur, and sugar — the classic recipe, which all Aussie bartenders know — spelled a definitive choice: If you refused, you’d be in bed within the hour. But if you said yes, tipping that frothy, bittersweet, caffeinated concoction down the hatch, you were in it for the long haul. We were, and gave the happy couple the party they deserved.
This scene replays each night all across Australia, and especially in Melbourne. Yet, upper qualities aside, the espresso martini is not the Antipodean answer to a vodka-Red Bull; it is to Australia as the margarita is to the U.S., an everybody drink. Transcending age, class, and culture, it can be found in rowdy sports pubs, upscale restaurants, thumping nightclubs, and high-end cocktail bars. As with the margarita, while the quality depends on the venue, serious cocktail establishments make it bloody well.
At the Esplanade Hotel, one of Melbourne’s largest and most iconic pubs (many pubs are called “hotels” in Australia, a holdover from an old law that required bars to offer lodging), there are four styles of espresso martini made across the venue’s 12 different bars. Bar manager Kevin Peters says the pub has served more than 40,000 espresso martinis in the last 10 months alone, many pre-batched and on tap. “Espresso martinis have become an essential part of Melbournian nights out,” Peters says. “Leave it off your cocktail list and patrons will still call for it.”
The espresso martini wasn’t invented here — the honor goes to London, where in the late 1980s, the story goes, bartender Dick Bradsell was challenged by a young model to make a drink that would “wake her up, then fuck her up.” He grabbed a bottle of vodka (trendy at the time), a shot of fresh espresso, and some coffee liqueur, then shook it all together. The serendipitous marriage of booze, coffee, and sugar worked surprisingly well, each element both balancing and enhancing the others. The drink took off.
The recipe reached Australia by the late ’90s, just as the country’s nascent cocktail culture was beginning to take shape, and today, Melbourne is its spiritual home. Here you’ll find entire festivals dedicated to the espresso martini, shake-your-own versions for sale at liquor stores, local brands of cold-brewed coffee designed especially for cocktails, and creative takes on the classic as carefully crafted as anything you’d find in New York’s or Tokyo’s best bars.
Yet in most of the world, the espresso martini has been relegated to the dark ages of ’90s-style dessert cocktails, best consumed ironically at a TGI Fridays. So why have Australians so embraced this drink? It’s the coffee.
“In Melbourne, the coffee just keeps getting better,” says Simon Toohey, a Melbourne bartending vet who’s helped organize multiple espresso martini festivals. With other popular drinks from the same era, like a Cosmopolitan, it’s difficult to improve on the raw ingredients, beyond using better spirits; cranberry juice is cranberry juice. But coffee continues to be finessed, giving bartenders an impetus to keep the drink relevant.
Coffee is inarguably Melbourne’s thing. After World War II, a wave of Italian immigrants to Melbourne brought with them a passion for food, hospitality, and a key invention of the mid-20th century: the piston-powered espresso machine. High-quality espresso bars like Pellegrini’s began opening in Melbourne back in 1954, giving birth to one of the most vibrant cafe cultures in the world, which is still going strong today. When Pellegrini’s owner Sisto Malaspina was killed last year in a random attack, the lifelong espresso puller was given a state funeral — such is the status of coffee here.
The first modern Melbournian cocktail bars grew out of that existing cafe and casual-restaurant culture in the late 1990s, using espresso machines, snacks (some kind of cheese board was mandatory), and sugary cocktails to lure wary drinkers. When Melbourne’s most acclaimed cocktail bar, Black Pearl (where, full disclosure, I was a bartender for three years), opened its doors in 2002, the ultra-sweet Toblerone cocktail, a combination of Frangelico, honey, cream, and chocolate syrup, was a crowd favorite. There was also a full-sized, three-head commercial espresso machine.
According to owner Tash Conte, the espresso machine was there to attract business in the early hours of the evening, when the cafes had closed but the after-dinner crowd had yet to materialize. “People weren’t coming in at 5 p.m., so we needed a way to make some extra money during those quiet hours,” she says. “At lot of hospitality workers wanted a place to come and hang out and have a coffee before shift. That’s how we built a following early on.” The espresso martinis naturally flowed from the simple fact of having espresso and cocktails in the same space, and 17 years after Black Pearl opened, the drink is as popular as ever.
Black Pearl is just one example of a phenomenon that unfolded simultaneously in the handful of early bars that built Melbourne’s cocktail scene. They all served both espresso and booze, and stayed open later than most other establishments, thus quickly becoming go-to haunts for hospitality workers and clued-in drinkers alike. As cocktail culture spread around Melbourne, the espresso martini spread with it. There are now hundreds of dedicated cocktail bars in the city, and while most drinks from the early years have faded away — it’s hard to find a good Toblerone these days — espresso martinis are still served by the thousands.
There are also new versions popping up all the time. Mesa Verde, for example, serves an “Espresso Martinez” with two types of tequila, vermouth, espresso, and chocolate bitters, while Bodriggy Brewing Co.’s bar does a cascara (coffee cherry) spritz with vermouth, cherry brandy, and port.
But espresso is not just a monolithic flavor. Bartenders are considering the beans’ style, origin, and roast the same way they consider the botanicals in a gin — which is to say, seriously. For a traditional espresso martini, bartender Oska Jarvis-White of Melbourne cocktail bar the Ghost of Alfred Felton prefers a richer, darker roast for its intense bitterness and aroma. “But coffee is so versatile you can use any number of roasts and origins depending on the application,” he says. “Melbourne’s cocktail and coffee cultures are both booming, so we’re seeing more bartenders working with baristas, more exchange of information and skills, which is always going to lead to better drinks.”
In Carlton, the epicenter of Italian food in Melbourne, Capitano is doing new takes on old-school Italian. Its tiramisu cocktail is arguably the best dessert drink in town, combining clarified coffee-milk punch with muscat for a sweet, creamy concoction that looks like a whiskey on the rocks but tastes exactly like its namesake. For this, bar manager Darren Leaney opts for a filter coffee from Market Lane because of its lighter-than-usual roast. “It’s more floral and vegetal, and has a stronger acid structure,” he explains. “The drink already has enough rich and sweet elements, so you need that to provide balance.”
Despite innovations, the original follows the same formula as any classic, with various elements working together to create balance. Much as the sugar in a daiquiri acts as a counterpoint to fresh lime juice, in a well-made espresso martini the sweetness of coffee liqueur and sugar is tempered by the bitterness of coffee. Fundamentally, it works. And Melbournians will continue to unabashedly love it — so long as the coffee is good.
Fred Siggins is a bartender, writer, and drinks expert from Melbourne, Australia. He is a regular contributor to Time Out, has written two guides to the pubs of Melbourne, and has also been published in PUNCH, Good Food, and Bars & Clubs Magazine, among others. He currently works as strategy manager for Sullivans Cove Distillery, producers of Australian single malt whisky.
Jacinta Moore is a photographer and stylist based in Melbourne, Australia.
Fact checked by Lisa Wong Macabasco
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter