When London bartender Dick Bradsell created the “Vodka Espresso” at the Soho Brasserie sometime in the 1980s, no one could have foreseen the longevity of a drink reportedly created to appease a supermodel’s request for something that would “wake her up, then fuck her up.”
But four decades later, the drink—now widely referred to as the Espresso Martini—is having a resurgence, alongside a number of other drinks popular in the 1980s and ‘90s. And, as with so many other otherwise-established standards, bartenders are pressing the drink in new directions.
Like many other drinks from the same era (hello, Cosmo), the Espresso Martini isn’t the hippest. And those who choose to re-tool it often do it with its kitsch factor in mind. “It’s a silly resurgence,” admits Kevin Baird, bar manager at Brooklyn’s Celestine, who created a version spiked with Aperol for the aperitivo-focused drink menu. However, he says, “I’m a sucker for them.”
He’s not the only one. From New York to London to Australia, where a national coffee obsession meant devotion to the Espresso Martini never really went away, a new generation of bartenders is rediscovering the drink. As usual, some bartenders are happy to give beleaguered vodka the old heave-ho: Boston’s Fred Yarm swaps it out for tequila, creating the Espresso Mexicano, while at Brooklyn’s The Shanty, proprietor Allen Katz subs in his Perry’s Tot navy-strength gin, plus doses of cherry liqueur and spice that tweak the cocktail so it resembles another caffeinated guilty pleasure: Jolt soda.
And then there’s the espresso. The now-widespread availability of cold-brew coffee, easier to work with than hot coffee that needs to be cooled, has given the Espresso Martini a boost—even if it means kicking the espresso to the curb. At Retreat Gastropub in St. Louis, for example, cold-brew supports a base of rum in their unorthodox tiki-style “Espresso Martini.”
Even when the ingredients stay relatively traditional, bartenders can’t help tinkering with the format, as in the frozen variation served at London’s Ace Hotel Shoreditch, which resembles a frappé with a kick.
The Espresso Martini also stays on menus because it’s good for business, Baird notes: Bartenders like that it can serve on brunch and dessert menus, as well hold its own amid regular cocktail offerings. It’s also a mainstay in cocktail competitions, he adds, giving bartenders additional incentive to develop eye-catching new riffs that may find their way to menus. “If done well, they can be gorgeous and enticing.”
Even so, “they will probably never be a best-seller on any cocktail list, considering how polarizing cream-based cocktails are,” he says. (Although the original doesn’t include cream, many modern variations do.) That hasn’t stopped bartenders from fine-tuning the specs, though. Bradsell likely never envisioned his Vodka Espresso spiked with amaro or reimagined as a tiki drink—but it’s these fresh touches that have given the ’80s standby a new lease on life.