The liquid form of a tiramisu dessert, the Espresso Martini is the ultimate pick-me-up cocktail – a punchier, less heavy version of the White Russian.
It’s such a classic, it feels like it has been around forever. Yet it was only created in 1983. According to legendary bartender Dick Bradsell, when he was working in London’s Soho Brasserie a famous (unnamed) model came in and asked him for a drink to ‘wake me up’.
Espresso Martini: the history
There was a coffee machine next to the bar, so Bradsell mixed a shot of espresso with vodka – the favoured spirit at the time – along with the coffee liqueurs Tia Maria (£20.29, Amazon UK) and Kaluha (£15.50, Amazon UK) and a dash of sugar syrup. He served it on the rocks in an old fashioned glass and named it the Vodka Espresso.
Fast-forward a decade and vodka was still popular in the 1990s, but the fashion was for straight-up cocktails served in a v-shaped Martini glass. Regardless of whether they included vermouth and either gin or vodka (the classic combination), any drink served like this was dubbed a ‘Martini’, and so Bradsell renamed his cocktail the Espresso Martini to keep with the trend.
Not long after, in 1998, Bradsell was mixing drinks at the Pharmacy Bar in London’s Notting Hill and his cocktail got another moniker – the Pharmaceutical Stimulant – this version again served on the rocks but with more vodka and less coffee liqueur.
Today, the Espresso Martini is the most common iteration of Bradsell’s creation, and bartenders around the world have since added their own twists. The most common is removing the sugar syrup for a stronger coffee taste, or creating a simple version of equal parts coffee, vodka and liqueur. Other tweaks include adding a pinch of salt, swapping the vodka for rum, or the coffee liqueur for another flavour.
The coffee liqueur
While Bradsell’s initial cocktail used a mix of Kaluha and (the less sweet) Tia Maria, both of which are widely available, there are now a range of boutique coffee liqueurs that are arguably more suitable, particularly for anyone with a less sweet tooth.
Boatyard Distillery’s Declan McGurk, vice-president of the UK Bartenders Guild and former director of bars at The Savoy Hotel in London, recommends Cross Brew from Scotland (£25.75, The Whisky Exchange) for its ‘firm, robust’ coffee flavour, while in our taste test London’s Climpson & Sons Midnight Oil (£21.95, The Whisky Exchange) just pipped the cold brew liqueurs of Dorset’s Conker (£28.28, The Whisky Exchange) and Australia’s Mr Black (£29.75, The Whisky Exchange).
Whatever coffee liqueur you choose, what is not optional is the espresso. Yes, it seems bizarre to add a shot of hot coffee to a cocktail shaker of ice, but this is the only way you can guarantee the thick crema (rich foam) on the top of the drink that is the sign of both a good espresso and a good Espresso Martini.
Of course your cocktail will still be tasty if you use cold brewed coffee from a good roaster – never instant! – but it won’t be quite as authentic, smooth-textured or fresh. Neither will the creamy, frothy, Guinness-like head offer a sturdy base for the three coffee beans traditionally used as a garnish
Don’t worry, using hot espresso won’t give you a warm cocktail. Just make sure you add the shot to your shaker last, after the vodka and coffee liqueur. The ice (use one big block to avoid dilution) will ensure your cocktail is at the perfect serving temperature.
And just as it’s important to get the coffee right, choosing the right vodka is vital for the ultimate Espresso Martini.
McGurk recommends a wheat vodka for its ‘sweeter flavour profile and oily texture’. In our taste test, West Dorset’s Black Cow, distilled from whey, gives a uniquely creamy, chocolatey hit – perfect for an Espresso Martini. It was closely followed by the spicy and caramelly mixed-grain vodka from Konik’s Tail, the fruity barley richness of Kalak and Masons Espresso Vodka from Yorkshire infused with coffee beans.
How to make an Espresso Martini
Garnish Three coffee beans in a petal formation on the foam
Method Add the espresso, liqueur and vodka to a cocktail shaker with one big ice block (not crushed ice) and shake until cold. Then strain into a chilled glass.
30ml freshly made hot espresso
20ml coffee liqueur
(5ml sugar syrup optional, to taste)
Best vodkas for an Espresso Martini
Beluga Noble Vodka
Distilled in Siberia from malted barley, this is crisp, peppery and fresh more than creamy, lightly flavoured with honey and extracts of oat and milk thistle. A classic, warming vodka with a weighty mouthfeel and floral finish, ideal for any Martini. Alc 40%
Black Cow Vodka
The first vodka made entirely from whey, left over after the curds from grass-fed cow’s milk go into Jason Barber’s awarded 1833 Cheddar at his West Dorset farm. It has a deliciously smooth and – yes – creamy mouthfeel, with white chocolate richness and background notes of pepper. Ideal for those who are gluten intolerant and perfect in an Espresso Martini. Excellent value. Alc 40%
An unfiltered Irish wheat vodka that can trace the grain used in each bottle back to the field from which it was harvested. Rich vanilla pastry notes, banana sweetness and gentle white pepper spicing on a smooth but fresh palate that will appeal to Irish whisky lovers. Alc 41%
Jeptha Creed Vodka
Made in Kentucky from a mash of the red kernelled heirloom variety of corn called Bloody Butcher, this has real vanilla, bakewell tart and banana sweetness to the nose and palate. A smooth Bourbon-lover’s vodka. Alc 40%
Kalak Single Malt Vodka
Pot-distilled four times from Irish barley malted in West Cork to give a very distinctive flavour and ultra-smooth, creamy palate. Aromas and flavours of chocolate croissants, fruitcake and spiced biscuits and a long oily mouthfeel. Another one for the whisky lovers to sip and savour or enjoy in a rich Espresso Martini. Alc 40%
Ketel One Vodka
From the Nolet family distillery in Holland, founded in 1681 and now run by the 10th generation. It’s a well-priced wheat vodka – mainly column-still spirit with a small amount of pot-still distillate, giving a clean, fresh citrus and herb flavour. Great for mixing. Alc 40%
Konik’s Tail Vodka
Named for the wild ponies that graze in the fields of spelt, rye and wheat used to make this small-batch Polish vodka. Beautifully smooth with warming bonfire toffee tones, crème caramel and a distinct peppery spiciness. A complex and characterful spirit, delicious neat or for an Espresso Martini. Alc 40%
Masons Espresso Vodka
Yorkshire distiller Masons produces this smooth vodka, infused with coffee beans from El Salvador. Freshly roasted coffee aromas – bitter and mellow – with hints of dark chocolate and coffee cream, then a crisp, clean palate. Dials up the coffee flavour if you want your Espresso Martini to really pack a punch. Alc 40%