In Search of the Ultimate Espresso Martini

We asked 10 of America’s best bartenders to submit their finest recipe for the Espresso Martini—and then blind-tasted them all to find the best of the best.

The Espresso Martini, the most famous coffee cocktail to come along since the Irish Coffee, is not what you’d call a sessionable drink. It’s a one-and-done sort of deal. But, in the name of research, we recently convened a panel to taste through ten versions of the modern classic in order to determine which one got the job done best.

Joining myself on the panel were PUNCH’s own Chloe Frechette and Lizzie Munro, alongside bartender Tristan Willey (Booker & Dax, The Long Island Bar). 

“It’s a drink in passing,” said Willey, sizing up the cocktail’s role in any given night. “It’s a transitional drink—always.” That transition may be from the workday to after hours, as an evening starter. Or it might be from the early shank of the night to the next leg, as a mid-evening boost. Either way, the drink is a solo act. No one, the panelists agreed, has two Espresso Martinis in a row, or even in one day. Not if they have any sense, anyway.

“It’s the Vodka Red Bull thing,” explained Willey, “the presence of caffeine and the presence of alcohol. The upper and downer element are not great for the brain and the heart.”

This piece of java-flavored rocket fuel was invented in the early 1980s by Dick Bradsell, the late godfather of the London cocktail renaissance. The oft-told story is that Bradsell invented the cocktail on the spot when a supermodel (whom he always refused to identify) asked him for a drink that would “wake me up, then fuck me up.” His liquid answer combined vodka, espresso, coffee liqueur and simple syrup. The original name he gave the invention was, simply enough, Vodka Espresso. But over the years the catchier Espresso Martini became the accepted handle. A truly international success, the drink is widely served in Europe, Australia and now, after some initial resistance, the United States. Bradsell’s untimely death in 2016 also led to a renewal of interest in the cocktail.

Bartenders find plenty of room for creativity within the simple formula (two ounces vodka, one ounce fresh espresso, half-ounce coffee liqueur, quarter-ounce simple syrup), and the recipes submitted for the tasting varied widely in choice of vodka and coffee liqueur brands. A few even slipped in other modifiers, like fernet, vanilla liqueur and crème de cacao.

But the biggest divide came in the coffee department. The original drink calls for espresso, and Bradsell always insisted it be fresh. But not all bars have an espresso machine, so some bartenders have turned to cold brew or cold brew concentrate as an easier alternative. The judges saw the reasoning behind this move but, as the tasting progressed, found themselves drawn to the drinks made with fresh espresso.

“There’s something about the craft of it, the making of the espresso, the crafting of the cocktail,” said Willey.

The espresso also lends the drink an edge in flavor and texture, in Munro’s opinion. “For the ones that didn’t have coffee, the first thing I tasted was coffee liqueur,” she said. “There is a texture that I think the coffee gives it.”

The espresso also boosted the drink in appearance, according to Willey, giving it a bigger, Guinness-like head that the panelists all looked for. “You can’t get that with cold brew,” stated Willey. (Bartender Thomas Spaeth, who prepared the drink, pointed out that, when ordered as one in a round of drinks, the Espresso Martini is typically made last, in order to preserve that head longer.)

Despite all this analysis, the judges admitted that the Espresso Martini was not a drink they tended—or even wanted—to overthink. Neither Willey nor Frechette expected to find complex flavors in the glass. For them, the cocktail always contained an element of empty-headed whimsy.

“A drink that wakes you up and then fucks you up,” admitted Frechette. “That is kind of what you want.” (The idea of a decaf Espresso Martini was dismissed as not only pointless, but the epitome of un-fun.)

Two drinks tied for first place. One was from Patrick Smith at The Modern restaurant in Manhattan. It calls for an ounce of Tito’s vodka, a three-quarter ounce each of espresso and Mr. Black Cold Brew Coffee Liqueur, a half-ounce of Giffard Vanille de Madagascar and a quarter-ounce of demerara syrup. The inclusion of the vanilla liqueur gave the drink a more fulsome, candied quality, while keeping it within an archetypal framework.

Sharing the top title was Stefano D’Orsogna’s version from Sonnyboy, an Australian café that recently opened in New York’s Lower East Side. Built on one ounce each of Ketel One vodka, espresso and Mr. Black Cold Brew Coffee Liqueur, plus a half-ounce of simple syrup, the drink was drier and even more textbook than Smith’s. (It was a big day for Mr. Black, a new Australian product.)

Third place went to Jeffrey Morgenthaler of Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon. The only victor to ask for cold brew—albeit in the form of a concentrate—the drink was otherwise standard, mixing in a three-quarter ounce each of Stoli 100 Proof vodka and Kahlua, while eschewing simple syrup. In a clandestine touch, Morgenthaler instructed a lemon peel be expressed into the mixing tin before shaking.

All three winners were garnished with the traditional trio of floating coffee beans. Spaeth, sampling the tying drinks, declined to pick a favorite. “I’d like to have that one for dessert,” he concluded, indicating Smith’s, “and that one at the start of the evening.”

Just not the same evening.

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