Thanks to the now near ubiquity of cold brew, coffee cocktails are growing—and growing up. More, and better, third wave bean-toned beverages are proliferating in bars from coast to coast, and these highbrow tipples are far cry from the original Espresso Martini. Pardon the pun, but this trend has been percolating for years, some might even say for decades or centuries.
Coffee, Meet Booze
During the 18th century, coffeehouses in Europe and America functioned as public meeting spaces, becoming important centers for conviviality and commerce.
But by most accounts, the coffee there was awful, bearing little resemblance to what one might find at a local Starbucks today. Brewed in enormous eight to 10 gallon pots and served piping hot, many coffeehouse customers found the brew too bitter, and made it more palatable by adding milk and sugar, as well ingredients like ale, wine and spices.
By the 1870s, coffee had become downright indispensable to Americans, who consumed six times as much as most Europeans.
No wonder tea remained the favored drink in the Old World. But in the New World, coffee was king, thanks in part to proximity to coffee growing countries in Central and South America. According to coffee historian Mark Prendergrast, writing in Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World, the American taste for coffee swelled throughout the 1800s, particularly after the War of 1812 when American access to British tea was temporarily halted. Around then Brazilian coffee had become closer and cheaper. By the 1870s, coffee was downright indispensable to Americans, who consumed six times as much as most Europeans. No doubt much of that coffee was flavored with booze.
Coffee Cocktails Evolve
Meanwhile, the Golden Age of cocktails had started to unfurl. And maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that one of the best and fanciest was created in New Orleans during the 1890s, when the city was a key coffee importing port. Antoine’s, one of the city's oldest restaurants, is credited with inventing the Café Brûlot, a classic cocktail built from Cognac, Grand Marnier or Cointreau, dark brown sugar, cinnamon sticks, whole cloves and, of course, strong New Orleans chicory coffee. It’s a particularly showy drink, prepared tableside and set aflame with great ceremony.
Meanwhile, on the West Coast, a similarly flashy fiery coffee drink, the Spanish Coffee, also gained acclaim. The origin of the intoxicant is as murky as a cup of espresso, but Huber’s Café, the oldest restaurant in Portland, OR (est. 1879), popularized the beverage, made by setting overproof rum aflame before mixing it with hot coffee, coffee liqueur and brandy (some recipes say triple sec).
Of course, Prohibition put the lid on these fancy cocktails at U.S. restaurants, though plenty of hooch was still sipped covertly from opaque coffee and tea cups. Across the pond at the American Bar at London’s Savoy Hotel, barman Harry Craddock created the Coffee Cocktail, a frothy, latte-like libation that contained port, Cognac, a whole egg and nutmeg—but no coffee.
In the decades following Prohibition, two more seminal coffee cocktails emerged. The infamous Irish Coffee—hot coffee laced with Irish whiskey and brown sugar, usually topped with a cream float—is credited to Joe Sheridan, an Irish bartender working at Foynes’ Port in the 1940s, who served the drink to weary travelers. (Of course, tipplers in Ireland and elsewhere likely have been "making coffee Irish" for much, much longer.) Back on home turf, the drink was popularized in the 1950s at San Francisco’s Buena Vista Café.
And then there’s the Espresso Martini, a vodka-based drink whipped up by London mixology legend Dick Bradsell in 1983 at Soho Brasserie. The story goes that a customer requested a drink that would "wake her up and f—k her up." The drink went through a few iterations, but it peaked during the 1990s—the age of anything in a martini glass. Unlike most of the coffee cocktail forerunners, the Espresso Martini is particularly notable because it’s served chilled, even though it’s made with hot espresso (along with vodka and Kahlua coffee liqueur).
Contemporary Coffee Cocktails
Since then, coffee cockails have come a long way. Coffee itself has evolved—from Folger’s (first wave) to Starbucks (second wave) to beans organically and sustainably grown (third wave). There are better beans, better baristas and better bars. Even coffee liqueurs have improved, like Firelit and Roundhouse Spirits Corretto.
But cold brew— coffee brewed without heat—may be the single most exciting thing to happen to coffee cocktails since the the Espresso Martini.
Just ask Leo Robitschek, bar director at Eleven Madison Park, The NoMad and The NoMad Bar in Manhattan. At Eleven Madison Park, Robitschek has been building drinks with cold brew concentrate for seven years, back when the fine dining haunt upgraded its beverage program.
... cold brew ... may be the single most exciting thing to happen to coffee cocktails since the the Espresso Martini.
"Cold brew was brought in, the team took classes with Intelligentsia coffee," Robitschek recalls. "When we came back, it became an additional ingredient we could play with." Now, The NoMad (restaurant and bar) has one of the most extensive—and thoughtful—coffee cocktail menus around.
Oddly enough, it started as backlash to the Espresso Martini. "Everyone already associates coffee cocktails with creamy [styles]," or cream liqueurs like Bailey’s Irish Cream, explains Petro Collina, head bartender at The NoMad Bar who started with Robitschek at Eleven Madison Park. "We wanted a boozy, stirred drink that would play well with coffee as one of the modifying ingredients." One of the first coffee additions to Eleven Madison Park’s menu was the Bitches Brew, a dark, bracingly bitter blend of rye whiskey, cold brew, herbal Zwack liqueur and mole bitters.
Subbing cold brew in for espresso offers several advantages, Robitschek notes. Bartenders save time since there's no need to pull an espresso shot, and more importantly there's no hot drinks (which can over dilute as ice melts or, if the coffee is first chilled, become too bitter and/or sour).
The NoMad Bar's brunch menu features a range of coffee cocktails, from a frothy egg white flip to a Mai Tai-style drink with rum and Curaçao, to an upscale riff on the oft-maligned Espresso Martini. And another stiff sipper to try is The Gentleman’s Exchange, with rye whiskey, Suze, Foro amaro, Vermouth di Torino, cold brew coffee, absinthe and Angostura Bitters.
Integral to many cocktails is citrus, so bartenders have had to overcome the bias of mixing citrus with coffee—even though many coffees have naturally citrusy notes.
Yet citrus is a key ingredient in the Tahitian Coffee cocktail for two served at New York’s Slowly Shirley, one of the most-Instagrammed drinks of the moment in part due to its size and presentation: the drink is served in a Chemex coffee maker. Originally created by tiki whiz Garret Richard, the cocktail features cold brew concentrate, along with rum, pisco, falernum and plenty of fruit juices: orange, lime, passion fruit and guava. Like many cold brew cocktails of the moment, the coffee is barely detectable.
"The layers of fruitiness and sour balance out the flavors brilliantly," says Jim Kearns, bar director The Happiest Hour/Slowly Shirley. And it doesn’t hurt that Stumptown is conveniently located right down the street.
Perhaps because coffee’s flavor complements the brown sugar notes of aged rum so well, it seems to have become a staple ingredient in tiki-style drinks, showing up in the Tahitian Coffee, but also Ripples on an Evaporated Lake (two kinds of aged rum, coffee, coconut, amaro) at Lost Lake in Chicago and the Espresso Bongo (Jamaican rum, coffee syrup, pinapple, passion fruit, orange and lime) at Latitude 29 in New Orleans.
Yet coffee also seems to lend itself to the bitter and stirred cocktail style, whether complementing or even standing in for amaro altogether, as in the low-ABV Americano??? cocktail at Compère Lapin in New Orleans, where bartender Abigail Gullo mixes cold brew with sweet vermouth, brightening the tall sipper with a dash of black lava salt on top. Similarly, some bartenders are experimenting with coffee as a "bittering agent"—as in Slowly Shirley’s Black & Gold, which mixes Cynar and rum with whole coffee beans for a bitter edge.
What could possibly be next, after cold brew propels this next wave of caffeinated cocktail inspiration? Perhaps bourbon "barrel-conditioned" coffee beans used in a barrel-aged-barrel-aged-coffee cocktail. It seems like the kind of meta fever dream one could only imagine while a little bit tipsy, yet spectacularly over-caffeinated.