The New Coffee Cocktails

The coffee cocktail has evolved well beyond the White Russian. Here are five inventive drinks that prove it.

When The Aviary’s chef tasked his bar teams in Chicago and New York to come up with a variation for his favorite drink—the White Russian—it had to be next level.

“The restrictions you have in regular bars, we don’t have,” says Aidan Bowie, bar director for the The Aviary NYC and The Office. “We have equipment and tools and the flexibility to do things that are more out-there.”

But they still wanted to keep the creamy, coffee-liqueur-spiked core of the decadent guilty-pleasure cocktail. The end result was The Aviary Abides, a velvety mix of nitro coffee, Grey Goose vodka, Coca-Cola, kirsch and Mr. Black Cold Brew Coffee Liqueur, poured from a carafe over a scoop of vanilla ice cream shaped like a bowling ball, dotted with cherry liqueur to mimic finger holes. “It’s a White Russian; it’s a somewhat trashy drink so you can’t make it too fancy,” Bowie notes. Yet subtle touches like nitro coffee and Mr. Black (“I love the bitterness; it doesn’t come across as cloyingly sweet”) add sophistication.

Coffee-spiked cocktails have come a long way since classics like the whiskey-laced Irish Coffee (1940s/‘50s), the White Russian (1960s, but later popularized by the film The Big Lebowski, which The Aviary NYC nods to with its drink) and the Espresso Martini (1980s/’90s) entered the lexicon. Perhaps most importantly, coffee culture has evolved, from first-wave drip coffee to Starbucks to today’s craft “third-wave” coffee. Those expectations extend to coffee liqueurs as well. At New York’s Dante, which offers the dessert-inspired Tiramisu cocktail—Marsala wine, Mr. Black Cold Brew Coffee Liqueur, espresso—proprietor Naren Young says he favors liqueurs “that actually had some coffee beans used in its production,” not just artificial flavoring.

While creamy drinks like The Aviary Abides or the Tiramisu remain natural companions to coffee, bartenders also favor the natural bitterness of coffee in stirred-and-strongstyle drinks, often as a complement to or even as a replacement for amaro. Consider, for example, the Cold Brew Negroni at Santa Monica’s Lunetta or the shochu-spiked IMO at New York’s Bar Goto. The subtle fruity notes found in some coffee varieties also pair well in drinks like the citrus-accented Café Marumbi at Stay Gold, also in New York, which draws inspiration from the trendy espresso-tonics found at many top coffee shops. And classics like the Espresso Martini have spawned next-gen versions, such as But First, Coffee from Los Angeles’ Toca Madera.

Although coffee is surely a bold flavor, with the potential to overpower drinks if not used judiciously, its versatility is also part of the appeal. “Depending on what type of coffee you use, it can add gorgeous bitterness or freshness, smokiness,” Bowie adds. “It can be very diverse.”

Five Next-Gen Coffee Cocktails