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How the Espresso Martini Became a Modern Classic

April 22, 2021

Story: Robert Simonson

photo: Eric Medsker


How the Espresso Martini Became a Modern Classic

April 22, 2021

Story: Robert Simonson

photo: Eric Medsker

Leaving behind a trail of forgotten iterations and abandoned monikers, Dick Bradsell’s “Pharmaceutical Stimulant” remains as popular as ever.

She wasn’t Kate Moss. She wasn’t Naomi Campbell. In fact, the mysterious woman—who, according to legend, asked bartender Dick Bradsell one night at the Soho Brasserie in London in the 1980s for a drink that would “fuck me up and then wake me up”—may not have been a model at all.

“He told me he couldn’t even remember who it was once and he just assumed she was a model,” says Miranda Dickson, global brand director at Absolut Elyx, who interviewed Bradsell about the drink in 2011, five years before he died.

But Beatrice Bradsell, the late bartender’s daughter, insists there was, indeed, a model.

“Unfortunately I don’t know the name of the model,” says Bradsell. “He took that to the grave. I do know it was a true story, but he loved the mystery that came with the unrevealed identity.”

The never-to-be-known model is just one of many details about the Espresso Martini that has been obscured by the mists of time. Even the very name of the drink is a matter of dispute. It began its long, robust journey through the world’s bars under the prosaic moniker Vodka Espresso. It then evolved sometime in the late 1990s into the Espresso Martini, the name that has stuck. It also enjoyed a brief, fevered notoriety from 1998 to 2003 as the Pharmaceutical Stimulant (more on that later).

Along the way, the drink changed as often as its name. The cocktail originally served at the Soho Brasserie on Old Compton Street was an off-menu special Dick Bradsell bestowed on favored friends and colleagues. There was no coffee liqueur in the drink at the time; only, as the name would indicate, shots of vodka and espresso, tied together by a little simple syrup. The mixture was served on the rocks and topped with the now-iconic garnish of three espresso beans.

When exactly Bradsell came up with the potion that would become his calling card is likewise a matter of conjecture. Some sources say 1983, but Beatrice Bradsell thinks otherwise.

“Dad told me they were filming the David Bowie film Absolute Beginners in Soho at the time,” explains Bradsell. “The film was released in 1986, which makes me think the drink was created in 1985.”

But it would take another decade or so for the cocktail to become news. By several accounts, Dick Bradsell served many Vodka Espressos in the mid-’90s at the Atlantic Bar & Grill, the subterranean Piccadilly bar that made him a household name in the United Kingdom. But the drink didn’t appear on a menu until Jonathan Downey hired Bradsell at his bar Match EC1, which opened to acclaim in September 1997.

“I immediately loved it and it became one of the ‘Match-nificent Seven’ cocktails we had up in big letters on the wall,” recalls Downey. “I’m certain hardly anyone would have had this drink or heard of it before Match. It was hugely popular and a real revelation.”

The cocktail served at Match was a transitional version in the drink’s tangled timeline. It still went by the name Vodka Espresso, but was made with coffee liqueur in lieu of genuine espresso and, critically, was served up in a stemmed glass. According to Beatrice Bradsell, her father had never been completely satisfied with the drink and kept tinkering with it.

Espresso Martini Recipe

Espresso Martini

Dick Bradsell's modern classic has traveled under many names, but has never waned in popularity.

“He thought of where he wanted it to sit and his mind went to dessert-style cocktails and the Brandy Alexander,” says Bradsell. “In his mind, the Brandy Alexander works so well because it took two quite different flavors and used modifiers to bridge the gaps in the palate. He worked to do the same with his cocktail by using various coffee liqueurs and shaking it to improve the texture.”

By the end of the 1990s, these changes had stuck, along with a new name: Espresso Martini.

Who came up with the new name is hard to say. Simon Difford, founder of Class magazine, which launched in 1997 and employed Bradsell as a writer, points to Dick himself. Downey, however, denies this with his usual gusto.

“That’s complete bullshit!” says Downey who has always taken a strong dislike to the new name, and continues to call the drink the Vodka Espresso to this day. “Dick was such a mellow guy though, that he never resisted or was bothered by the new name.”

Most people blame the ’tini craze of the 1990s with forcing a new identity upon the Vodka Espresso. “Everything was ’tini-tastic in London,” says Dickson. “The Martini was such a movement. That’s when the Vodka Espresso grew into the Espresso Martini.”

Dick Bradsell wasn’t quite done with his invention after Match, though. In 1998, Damien Hirst, the English artist who was briefly besotted with cocktail culture, opened his own bar called Pharmacy in Notting Hill. Bradsell, hired to create the drink program, took his Vodka Espresso/Espresso Martini and rechristened it the Pharmaceutical Stimulant. It was now back on the rocks.

“I certainly remember drinking them at Pharmacy when Dick was running that,” says Angus Winchester, a seasoned cocktail consultant. “And then another version when he was doing the drinks at AKA—that version was on the rocks with a cream float.”

Anything Dick Bradsell laid his hand to at that point was noteworthy, so the drink, under whichever name it sailed, spread like wildfire.

“It’s hard to [overestimate] how influential he was to us back then, but also how many spots he worked at,” explains Winchester.

Bartender Salvatore Calabrese remembered the Espresso Martini being one of the most-ordered drinks at his own bar, Salvatore at Fifty, in 2004, despite not appearing on the menu. By then, the drink had even made its way to Australia, thanks to the many bartenders from the UK and Australia who took advantage of the fluid worker-exchange laws between the two countries.

“There was a cross-pollination going on,” recalls Naren Young, a prominent Australian bartender at that time, who had spent a year working at bars in London. “It’s an easy drink to make. It crossed that line between sweet and bitter and frothy.”

As to the drink’s unending appeal, Downey points to the obvious—the one-two punch the cocktail embodies. It’s popular, he said, “for the reasons Dick has so brilliantly shared—it wakes you up and fucks you up!”

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Tagged: modern classics