“It has a reputation as being a little bit trashy… an old, really sweet, really boozy drink that only novices order,” says Patrick Smith of the Espresso Martini. “I don’t think it deserves that reputation.”
The caffeinated cocktail wasn’t originally on the drinks list at The Modern, Danny Meyer’s contemporary American restaurant where Smith serves as the bar manager. But visitors to the Midtown Manhattan destination, located in the Museum of Modern Art, still called for it—again and again.
“Why are we putting a roadblock up to people enjoying this drink?” asked Smith. “I said, ‘Let’s put it on the menu, and then take apart every piece of the cocktail and build it back up.’”
Which is exactly what he did, finally placing the drink on the menu in 2018 after testing more than 15 iterations to find the winning formula. (Although The Modern remains closed during the pandemic, Smith is currently tending bar at Harlem’s Sugar Monk, where his version of the drink also is available.) “I wanted to put it on the menu to encourage people to order it and not feel bad about it,” he explains.
The classic, created in the early 1980s by late London bar legend Dick Bradsell, features vodka, espresso, coffee liqueur and simple syrup. Smith’s version keeps the vodka and the espresso—albeit in smaller quantities—but splits the liqueur portion between coffee and vanilla liqueurs and swaps the simple syrup for a quarter-ounce of slightly richer demerara syrup.
Dialing back on the amount of syrup was one of the easier adjustments to make: “That helps dry it out and let the bitterness of the espresso really play,” says Smith.
He knew from the start that fresh espresso would be a key component in his take. “The crema you get with good, fresh espresso is one of the most important parts of the drink; cold brew doesn’t have that,” he explains. By complementing the espresso with Mr Black Cold Brew Coffee Liqueur, however, he was able to incorporate cold brew’s “clean, bright flavor,” for the best of both worlds. It also uses half the sugar of other coffee liqueurs, according to the producer. “That kept with the theme of dialing back sugar in the drink,” Smith notes.
Splitting the liqueur measure is a half-ounce of Giffard Vanille de Madagascar, which subtly elevates the bittersweet profile. “Vanilla more than anything else flavorwise sets it apart from other Espresso Martini recipes,” Smith explains. “It helps it feel all the more rich and decadent without pumping up the sugar levels too much.” According to Smith, Giffard, which is made with vanilla extract, provides “a true vanilla flavor.”
The final piece of the puzzle—and the most troublesome—was the base spirit.
“We had this preconceived notion that it had to be 1 ½ ounces of vodka, of base sprit, especially for a shaken drink,” Smith recalls. “[But] we realized we don’t want this drink to taste super boozy—we want it to be decadent and rich, but not too sweet.” To that end, he pulled the vodka down to just 1 ounce. “Dialing back the amount of vodka was the thing that locked everything into place… It just had a harmony it didn’t have before.”
Smith’s vodka of choice is Ketel One, which he prefers for its “velvety texture,” and because it’s robust enough to stand up to the other bold components of the drink. Shaken with ice and presented in a coupe glass with three coffee beans—considered a lucky number—floating on the frothy surface, the drink was complete. “I do remember… saying, ‘I don’t want to do anything else to this,’” Smith recalls. “This is what we need to serve to people.”