“It’s a transitional drink,” says Tristan Willey, co-founder of Good Vodka, of the Espresso Martini. This is true of all coffee cocktails, whether that transition is from day to night with that monster of a drink, or, as the seasons change, from refreshing, warm-weather coffee cocktails to warming one’s hands with a steaming cup of espresso-based Livorno Punch. From shaking with espresso to stirring with coffee beans, there is more than one way to caffeinate your cocktail. Here are our favorites.
For the most potent dose of fresh coffee flavor, nothing compares to espresso. The Espresso Martini is an obvious choice to feature the brew; our favorite recipe in a blind tasting of several versions is a drier take, with the volume of syrup dialed back to give the overall cocktail a more bitter profile that still reads as a classic, made modern. But for something extra-modern, Charity Johnston’s take on the ’80s ’tini swaps the base spirit (tequila, for vodka), chills the espresso, and trades the expected simple syrup for a sweet, Tajín-tinged Coca-Cola reduction, inspired by cold brew.
For the easiest espresso-plus-booze combinations, though, turn to the caffeinated cocktails of history. There’s the Mexico City party drink that hails from the 19th century, the carajillo, made by pouring espresso and the Spanish liqueur Licor 43 over ice. And even before that, there was the 17th-century protococktail from Italy, Livorno Punch—a steamy combination of espresso, spiced rum, sugar and a lemon twist—described by Roman bartender Manuel Di Cecco as “a melting pot between a simple coffee and a proper international drink.”
Perhaps the most readily available ingredient for the home bartender, coffee is a quick fix to add heat and brewed flavor to cocktails. Although some takes on the Irish Coffee call for espresso (as in St. John Frizell’s, a favorite in our blind tasting), it’s traditionally made with hot coffee and is perhaps the most famous coffee cocktail in the canon. At Buena Vista Cafe, the age-old recipe combines hot coffee with whiskey, sweetener and whipped cream, just as it does at New York bar Dead Rabbit, which sells hundreds of orders of the drink each week. The bar revamped its version of the drink after workshopping it with “Cocktail King” Dale DeGroff, and the new and improved cocktail is a satisfying combination of hot drink and cold topper, sweetened cocktail and unsweetened cream. New York bartender Troy Sidle also paid careful attention to the cream element, introducing the alpine flavor of génépy and a pinch of salt to the topper of his Strong Start, adding another layer of complexity to the coffee cocktail.
On the opposite coast, Portland, Oregon’s oldest restaurant has been slinging Spanish Coffee since 1975; this version takes a similar approach to Irish Coffee, but is built on a base of rum. At Huber’s, bartenders light overproof rum and triple sec in a mug before extinguishing the flame with the rest of the ingredients, resulting in a very theatrical serve and a caramelized sugar rim.
Of the coffee liqueur cocktails, the White Russian is perhaps the most well known. But the ingredient figures into countless other original drinks that benefit from its bittersweet flavor. Alicia Perry’s T Stagg Slide, for example, draws on the Mudslide as inspiration, while Brooklyn bartender Richie Boccato’s streamlined version of the Coffee House—a simple combination of coffee liqueur, rye whiskey and orange bitters—looks instead to the Old-Fashioned. And in lower-proof drinks, such as the vermouth-based Suppressor #1766 from Atlanta’s Ticonderoga Club, coffee liqueur imparts a bracing quality that stands out among the layered flavors.
Since cold brew became widely available stateside in 2015, the chilled coffee has subsequently entered the cocktail scene. Unlike traditional coffee or espresso, cold brew is, well, cold, and its smooth, lightly sweet flavor works in drinks well beyond the hot classics. Tropical and tiki-style cocktails, with their fruity and spiced profile, complement the ingredient particularly well. At Cindy’s in Chicago, for example, the Roman Holiday, a Jungle Bird riff, adds a splash of cold brew to echo the caramel notes of Amaro Meletti. In the Wipeout, from Death & Co.’s Tyson Buhler, amplified coffee flavor (thanks to cold-brew concentrate) stands up against a trio of rums. With the addition of pineapple and lemon juices, the resulting drink strikes a balance between richness and bright, acidic flavors.
In stirred cocktails, too, cold brew can impart a digestif-like flavor. The El Duque, from Miami bar Twenty Seven, uses it in a Manhattan-style format, combining it with rum and sherry, all finished with three dashes of chocolate bitters.
Or, Try a Coffee Cocktail Hack
The beauty of coffee cocktails is their versatility. Many coffee cocktails are flexible, intended for personalizing to one’s own preferences. The caffè corretto, for example, is less a recipe and more an invitation to simply throw together espresso and spirit, whether the base is aromatic grappa, saffron-accented Strega or minty Fernet-Branca. If the latter, amaro-based coffee drink sounds best, you might also try the quick infusion method, combining amaro with coffee grounds and herbs in a moka pot. Different botanicals alter the drink in different ways, so just a few tweaks can yield a broad range of digestivi.
For the absolute easiest way to caffeinate a cocktail, though, turn to an à la minute bartending hack to wake up an Old-Fashioned or a Negroni. Stirring in, then straining out, a few whole beans—preferably dark roast, for the most oiliness—adds a subtle hint of coffee flavor to drinks. Use the method in cocktails with sweet vermouth or sherry, where the beans’ bitter, chocolatey flavor adds nuance to the sweeter elements. With this technique, and when using coffee in general, experimentation is key; there’s not really a wrong way to use it. As Paris bartender Nico de Soto, who regularly employs the method, explains: “Coffee goes with everything.”