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The Great Espresso Martini Revival

March 05, 2022

Story: Punch Staff

photo: Eric Medsker

The modern classic has come full circle and is back in the arms of bartenders eager to elevate the crowd-pleasing blueprint.

Though classic cocktails stand tall on their own reputation, they also serve as templates for countless variations. Take the Old Fashioned or the Negroni; swap in mezcal for the base of either and you have a drink that reimagines yet respects the original framework. As the Espresso Martini experiences yet another comeback, its core components are also undergoing a revision. One recent variation, the Rémy Espresso, swaps vodka for Rémy Martin 1738 Accord for a modern drink that’s elevated yet true to spirit.

But before the template ever warranted tweaking, it got its start as word-of-mouth, off-menu favorite in 1980s London. Created by career bartender Dick Bradsell (1959–2016), a key figure in the U.K.’s modern cocktail culture who also invented the Bramble and the Treacle, the Espresso Martini was first dubbed the Vodka Espresso and served to Bradsell’s regulars at London’s Soho Brasserie. Back then, the drink was as simple as its name: vodka and espresso sweetened with a bit of simple syrup, served on the rocks, and adorned with three coffee beans representing health, wealth and happiness, in the Italian style of serving anise liqueur con la mosca (“with the fly”).

But before bartenders started riffing on the Espresso Martini with everything from Rémy to cold brew concentrate, the Espresso Martini was a blueprint for the bartender’s tinkering—including its progenitor’s. In the mid-1990s, Bradsell took the Vodka Espresso to Piccadilly’s Atlantic Bar & Grill, where it continued to be an off-menu staple, eventually surfacing in bars across the city. It finally appeared on a menu as the Espresso Martini when Bradsell landed at Match EC1. This new iteration swapped in coffee liqueur for fresh espresso, and coincided with the nearly decadelong ’tini craze, when any drink served in an oversize V-shaped cocktail glass was called a “Martini.” Though Bradsell renamed his cocktail the Pharmaceutical Stimulant in 1998 while at artist Damien Hirst’s bar Pharmacy, its former guise—the Espresso Martini—was already canon.

As the modern cocktail renaissance of the mid- and late 2000s focused on pre-Prohibition classics, eschewing many of the drinks born in the 1970s and ’80s, the Espresso Martini was relegated to elder statesman status and slipped into semiretirement. But in time, modern bartenders began to reconsider the drink through a modern lens. And today, its plug-and-play template has allowed for the integration of flavored liqueurs, bitters and spices as well as the trading of its core ingredient, vodka, for spirits with age and depth, such as Rémy Martin 1738 Accord Cognac.

These innovations have been sparked in part by a years long pandemic, which has driven many bartenders to translate craft techniques to cocktails at home, coupled with celebratory bar reopenings. “As restaurants and bars opened back up amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the Espresso Martini came back with guns blazing,” says Brian Evans, bar director for a New York City hospitality group. “It’s a cocktail that naturally has that ‘sizzling fajita effect’ in appearance. Once one goes out, many more will inevitably follow.” Evans attributes the cocktail’s renewed popularity to its versatility—that fact that it works at brunch, before dinner or accompanying dessert.

Another factor in the Espresso Martini’s return is the evolution of America’s coffee culture and education, which parallels the cocktail movement. “Bartenders exploring quality coffee-based products and techniques have emboldened the Espresso Martini with lasting power,” says Los Angeles bartender and consultant Karen Fu. “The Espresso Martini is a blueprint for how cocktail and coffee culture can intermingle in exciting, delicious ways.”

Christian “Suzu” Suzuki, general manager at a San Francisco cocktail bar, considers the Espresso Martini the “perfect canvas” for elevation. “It’s a minimalistic cocktail with so much space for complexity. A lot of the standards and expectations from spirits and cocktails are mirrored in coffee consumption.” A savory and fragrant Kenyan coffee with good acidity might pair well with mezcal or tequila, while a nutty, buttery Brazilian coffee would make a great match for bourbon, explains Suzuki who opts to mix and match fresh espresso with cold-brew concentrate.

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When it comes to experimentation with spirit bases, bartenders have turned to integrating Cognac for vodka to create an increasingly complex formula. “Coffee and Cognac, especially one like Rémy Martin 1738, is a marriage of classic flavor pairings,” says Suzuki. “It contains aromas and tasting notes—whether it’s toffee, chocolate and crème brûlée aromas to fruitcake, dark chocolate or cinnamon—that naturally pair well with coffee.” Natasha Bermudez, bar manager at a Peruvian restaurant in New York’s West Village, also turns to Cognac for more complexity and body. “The brown sugar and fig notes in the Rémy Martin 1738 complement the natural acidity and bittersweetness of coffee,” she says. Evans too singles out Rémy Martin 1738 for its flavors of licorice, plum and fig. “Having these notes in your flavor bank softens the bitterness of espresso and makes for a longer-lingering finish, as the tannins actually help the coffee flavors stick pleasantly to the tongue.”

And with the introduction of Rémy Martin 1738 Accord Royal to the old standard-bearer, a new iteration of a classic has been born: the Rémy Espresso. With its flavorful and textured base, it’s become its own launching pad for new techniques, with formulas ranging from bitter aperitivo-style highballs to frothy and spicy nightcaps.

As for the next chapter of the Espresso Martini, all signs point to longevity. “Like many things in this industry, the Espresso Martini will continue to evolve,” says Bermudez. “But I think it’s here to stay.”

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