The Third Wave Coffee Shop Adopts Cocktails

From Washington, D.C. to Phoenix to New York City, there's a proliferation of coffee shops living double lives as cocktail bars. Nevin Martell gets behind the trend to understand why these geeky worlds are joining forces.

Amble into Washington, D.C.’s Slipstream during the morning hours and you’ll be met with a small army of baristas lined up behind the dark wood bar, ready to pull an espresso or fire up the Seraphin automatic pour-over machine. The menu features a few surprises—a house-made soda flavored with dried coffee cherries and an espresso tonic—but the place offers everything you’d expect from a craft coffeehouse. That is, until you notice the shelving behind the countertop. Instead of neatly arrayed bags of MadCap beans, there are rows of liquor bottles—a not-so-subtle clue that the coffee shop enjoys something of a double life.

Slipstream is one of a growing number of hybrid coffee-cocktail bars across the country—from the Octane micro-chain in Atlanta and Birmingham, Alabama to Phoenix’s Lux Central and NYC’s The Randolph at Broome—where you can do shots of espresso at breakfast and come back for a Manhattan during happy hour.

The duality of concepts leads to an unusual mixture of customers. “We’ll have a room full of high schoolers in study groups and adults by the fireplace drinking cocktails,” says Lori Chandler, owner of Take Five Coffee + Bar in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park. “From a social aspect, this has been going on forever in Europe. I’m surprised it didn’t happen over here sooner.”

Given the equally fervent of love of technique, ingredient provenance, process and gadgetry that modern American baristas and bartenders both share, it is, indeed, somewhat surprising that it’s taken so long for the two worlds to collide—with equal expertise—behind one storefront. The way hot water is poured into a Chemex, the grind of the beans and where they came from or choosing a French press over a Steampunk brewing system all affect the resulting cup of coffee. Similarly, the way a drink is shaken, the size of the ice used, whether you use Kentucky bourbon or Japanese whisky and the shape of the glass can all have an impact on a cocktail’s flavor. With both professions, what may seem like a microscopic element can actually have an outsized influence on the final product if it’s handled correctly.

Ryan Fleming of Slipstream was inspired by this very 21st-century common ground between coffee and cocktail culture and wanted to create a space that enabled customers to gain genuine access to both. “It’s hard to have a conversation with a bartender at a popular place, because it’s three people deep,” says Fleming. “And coffee shops can be too hectic.” Hence the name Slipstream, a word that describes an area of reduced pressure or resistance behind a moving object.

Other concepts are taking inspiration from more time-honored cultural traditions that have long exalted booze and coffee as inseparable. D.C.’s Mockingbird Hill, for example, is an American take on the traditional sherry and tapas joints in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, where it’s rare to drink a coffee without the option of chasing it with a glass of sherry—or vice versa. At breakfast time, the menu offers up to 20 single-origin coffees from around the world, but from lunch onwards the offerings expand to include a stunning array of sherries. “I wanted to do away with the expectations of a consumer from the moment they walked through the door,” says co-owner Cory Andreen. “I wanted a coffee business that stripped away the normal trappings of a café, but it had to be familiar and not frighten people away. A bar is the best way to go.”

Whether inspired by Europe or the commingling of exacting geekery, there is a practical element at work in most of these concepts. These days, the crowd that populates high-end coffee shops is the same demographic that’s heading to craft cocktail bars come 5 p.m. Why not peddle both the poison and the antidote?

“Sometimes we see people in the morning who were in the night before,” says Chandler of Take Five Coffee + Bar.  “And occasionally we even have someone order a Bailey’s and coffee to get started again.”