Bartenders have rarely met a classic cocktail that didn’t inspire the desire to tinker with a fresh approach, and the Espresso Martini is no exception. In fact, influential British bartender Dick Bradsell (1959–2016), who created the drink in the mid-1980s, called it the Vodka Espresso and served it on the rocks, but by the 1990s he rebranded it as an Espresso Martini (served in a V-glass with the addition of coffee liqueur). It was briefly recast as the Pharmaceutical Stimulant, again served on the rocks, however its former guise is the one that has lived on in canon.
Today the Espresso Martini, a stimulating blend of vodka, coffee liqueur, espresso and simple syrup, has become a blueprint for top bartenders to reconsider each component of the drink—as well as the serve itself—and personalize their own riffs. Experimentation with coffee liqueurs, espresso and cold-brew coffee have become common. But one modern approach reconsiders the base spirit entirely: The Rémy Espresso replaces vodka with Rémy Martin 1738 Accord Royal Cognac, integrating notes of dark chocolate and toffee that complement and amplify the drink’s inherent flavors. It’s a formula that exemplifies the template’s core flexibility while staying true to the spirit of the original.
“The current revival of the Espresso Martini has caught us by surprise in a very good way,” says Christopher Figueroa, head bartender at a celebrated New American restaurant in Lower Manhattan’s Financial District. “When it comes to Cognac, Rémy Martin 1738 is a great substitute for vodka because it combines rich flavors that enhance the cocktail itself,” says Figueroa. “It’s nutty, with notes of vanilla and brioche, and its fruity, raisin undertones make it a perfect match for the Espresso Martini.” Figueroa highlights the natural affinity between Cognac and coffee in an unexpected way in the Cafecito, a Cuban coffee–inspired cocktail he created with bar director Harrison Ginsberg. “Some bartenders think of the drink as time-consuming to make,” Figueroa says, “but we [believe] that things that are hard or take time to create just make you better as a bartender.”
Lauren Corriveau, head of creative development and programming at a national hospitality group, agrees. “I’m here for it!” she says. “With the growth of craft coffee and our deepened appreciation thereof, it only makes sense that we’d rediscover an admiration for the Espresso Martini in the present.” Corriveau notes that while vodka makes a neutral base for the Espresso Martini, swapping in Rémy Martin 1738 Accord Royal complements espresso’s flavor and depth of character. “The fruit-forward flavor profile of Rémy Martin 1738 has a lot of synergy with the flavors of a good cup of coffee,” she says. “Dried figs, vanilla and overripe fruit are all tasting notes you might get off a well-pulled shot of espresso or single-origin brew, and these underlying flavors working in the background of your Espresso Martini help construct a more luxurious take on the classic.”
Though the way people take their coffee is personal, there are universal factors to consider when introducing the ingredient to a balanced cocktail, in particular freshness, quality and temperature. While many bars batch espresso for efficiency’s sake, if using a fresh shot, timing is key. “A shot of espresso begins to diminish as quick as 10 seconds after it has been pulled,” says Figueroa. “An Ethiopian coffee with bright fruit and balanced acidity is a great coffee when using a rich Cognac,” he says. Reaching for bottled cold brew or cold-brew concentrate has been a game changer for bartenders to maximize their Espresso Martini output without sacrificing quality or flavor. Plus, premade cold brew makes for a more stable product that helps yield consistent results.
For Orlando Franklin McCray, bar director for a Brooklyn nightclub, it’s important to consider that the coffee liqueur added to the drink offers what he calls a “double buzz” effect with the espresso. For his Kafé l’Orange, he splits the traditional coffee liqueur base with a cocoa-coffee bitter liqueur and a bright orange liqueur to build complexity that harmonizes with the vanilla aromatics of Rémy Martin 1738 Accord Royal. He also notes that the addition of milk powder, coupled with a quick-chill, low-dilution whip shake, yields a smoother, velvety consistency.
In the end, replacing a core ingredient like vodka with Rémy Martin 1738 Accord Royal—while respecting the quality of the other elements of the drink—instantly delivers an unexpected through line of flavor and body. “” says Figueroa, “but it can be made better by enhancing the actual spec. A proper shaken Espresso Martini with that perfect layer of froth and the pure darkness that ensues after is just a thing of beauty.”