Walk into a serious cocktail bar in New York or LA and order an Espresso Martini. You’ll probably get that look, cultivated by bartenders for more than a century, that says, Oh, sweetie, you don’t know what you’re doing, do you? In the US, it’s a drink that’s been relegated to the book of banished cocktails along with the Midori Illusion and the Fluffy Duck—relics of a bygone era most bars would rather forget.
But here in Australia, the Espresso Martini reigns supreme as the nation’s favorite cocktail. Order one at any Aussie cocktail bar, and the bartender will rush to the full-sized, professional espresso machine (there’s one in every bar), pull you a creamy shot of caffeinated goodness, and whip up your drink as naturally as if you’d ordered a Negroni. The longevity—and sheer popularity—of the drink in Australia is matched only by our obsession with good coffee. In fact, it’s the café culture cultivated by the latter that not only served as the blueprint for the Australian craft cocktail bar, but made the marriage of booze and espresso a matter of fate.
The Espresso Martini, however, is not our invention. That honor goes to British bartending guru Dick Bradsell, who is credited with revolutionizing the cocktail scene in London in the 1980s—through his work at bars such as The Player, 6 Degrees and Match—and the invention of modern classics like the Bramble.
The story goes that Bradsell created the drink—originally called The Pharmaceutical Stimulant—at Fred’s Club in the late 1980s, when a young model, who Bradsell claims is now world famous, sidled up to the bar and asked for something to wake her up, and then fuck her up. His solution was a combination of vodka, fresh espresso, coffee liqueur and sugar, shaken into a frothy mix of bittersweet addiction. (Some speculate the model was Kate Moss, others Naomi Campbell, but Bradsell has never revealed her identity.)
Bartending apocrypha aside, the drinks has legs. The natural oils in the espresso, which create that beautiful crema on top, turn into a thick, stable layer of froth when you shake it. The dark liquid beneath, when the drink’s made right, is a perfect balance of boozy, bitter and sweet. It’s like drinking a Guinness in a cocktail glass.
During the period of the drink’s conception—now termed the Dark Ages of the Cocktail—the “Martini” was beaten within an inch of its life. But among the now forgettable riffs on the original, Londoners considered the Espresso Martini to be a serious craft cocktail.
The drink grew in popularity throughout the 1980s and ’90s before eventually becoming a victim of its own success. As demand increased, substitutions were made—coffee liqueur or drip coffee in place of espresso making the drink too watery or too sweet, for one—and the Espresso Martini succumbed to the fast food mentality of drink making.
The drink’s unlikely longevity isn’t just a product of being embraced by the cocktail community, but a symptom of Australia’s ongoing love affair with espresso and its corollary café culture—one of the first to emerge outside of Europe.
But just as it was fading from respectability in London, many of the bartenders who helped establish that city’s growing scene were—thanks to relaxed visa programs for young people between Australia and the UK—making their way to the Great Southern Land. Here they found a place where their skills and knowledge were needed, and where their Espresso Martini would find new life within the country’s infant cocktail culture.
In the early aughts, the ideal of the stand-alone cocktail bar was just beginning to take shape in Melbourne thanks to bars like Misty, Ginger and Gin Palace. Taking their cues from the city’s popular late-night cafés and restaurants, these early cocktail bars drew the after-dinner crowd by billing their offerings as an alternative to dessert—literally. The Toblerone Cocktail, an early favorite at Melbourne’s Black Pearl, was a sticky combo of honey, Frangelico, Bailey’s, Kahlua and heavy cream garnished with chocolate sauce.
According to Sebastian Reaburn, Melbourne cocktail historian and former manager of legendary Melbourne bar 1806, in addition to dessert-style drinks, “every bar needed a few things to survive: table service, a cracking cheese board and decent coffee.”
While most of these early bars were doing Espresso Martinis, there was one spot responsible for sowing the seeds of what ultimately became a national obsession: Supper Club. The primary industry hangout in the early 2000s, the Supper Club served until 5 a.m. most nights, coffee included, and obsessed over every cup—each shot was ground to order in a carefully calibrated grinder and worth a whopping $4.50 ($6.50 in today’s dollars). Alongside the bittersweet Negroni, the Espresso Martini became the drink of choice for Melbourne’s hospitality elite, and followed them through the growth of the craft cocktail scene.
However, the drink’s unlikely longevity isn’t just a product of being embraced by the cocktail community, it’s also a symptom of Australia’s ongoing love affair with espresso and its corollary café culture (one of the first to emerge outside of Europe). This early development was thanks to a massive wave of Italian immigration coinciding with the start of commercial production of piston-driven espresso machines in the mid-1940s. Despite an early version of the espresso machine making its way to New York in 1927, the vast majority of Italian immigration to the US occurred in the 1800s, before espresso was a cultural imperative. Americans didn’t catch on until the 1990s, and even now abominations like the caramel macchiato still vastly outnumber espresso drinks of any discernible quality.
Australians, however, were sipping cappuccinos as far back as the 1950s and espresso remains ubiquitous here. Every pub, café, sandwich shop and restaurant from Melbourne to Alice Spring has an espresso machine, and most know how to use it.
While some bars have started removing their espresso machines, opting for a more classic, American approach to drinks, others have embraced the Espresso Martini and made it their own, folding it into broader trends behind the bar. Melbourne’s Eau De Vie, for example, takes the molecular approach, serving theirs topped with a sabayon frozen with liquid nitrogen, while Sydney’s Bulletin Place—a bar at the forefront of “garden to glass” bartending in Australia—bases their Espresso Martinis on a neighboring roaster’s Ethiopian blend. Others, like Melbourne’s Black Pearl, keep it simple, using a recipe close to the original. Their Espresso Martini continues to outsell all other cocktails at the bar by a ratio of four to one.
So, while most of the world’s drink makers have all but erased the memory of the Espresso Martini, Australian bartenders have made it an enduring (and profitable) symbol of the country’s approach to drinking, which has always endeavored to not take itself too seriously.