New Yorkers getting their caffeine fix with coffee and tonic concoctions

The coffee tonic from Blue Bottle Coffee.  Photo Credit: Blue Bottle Coffee

Coffee shops have moved away from simple iced coffee and cold brew to embrace caffeinated tonic water and syrup creations, cascara-based drinks and more.

The coffee tonic from Blue Bottle Coffee. 
The coffee tonic from Blue Bottle Coffee.  Photo Credit: Boston Harbor Hotel

It’s the end of summer timing-wise, but not weather-wise. And, no matter the temperature or power of the sun, New Yorkers still need their caffeine fix.

Iced coffee and cold brew have been on cafe menus for years, but lately local coffee shops have been more experimental, straying from the typical watered down, ice-laden drinks and moving instead toward more refreshing, creative takes on cold beverages.

What (seemingly) began with the “coffee tonic” a few years ago — though it’s still popping up on current menus — has now expanded to frosty drinks that come much closer to a mocktail than a watered-down espresso.

Tonic: not just a cocktail mixer

Coffee and tonic drinks first appeared in the U.S. about five years ago, though they are said to have originated in Scandinavia in the early 2000s. The classic concoction is fizzy tonic water poured over ice and topped with an espresso.

The piñna colada cold brew from Stumptown Coffee Roasters.
The piñna colada cold brew from Stumptown Coffee Roasters. Photo Credit: Stumptown Coffee Roasters

“Coffee tonic was popularized by a riff on Swedish coffee roaster Koppi’s signature house drink, as well as the rise of international barista competitions,” said Amanda Stackman, marketing director of popular tonic company Fever-Tree.

“The drink appeared on menus first on the West Coast, initially in San Fran at Saint Frank’s where his Kaffee Tonic was made with Fever-Tree tonic, ice and espresso,” she said. “Then they made their way East, with shops putting their own spin on the classic, appearing on menus across the country by 2015.”

Around this time, the choice drink was seen at Box Kite Coffee, Toby’s Estate (now Partners Coffee), and Stumptown Roasters in New York. However, Kinship Coffee (with three locations in Astoria) added an espresso tonic just this fall, and Blue Bottle Coffee added a version with their signature cold brew and Q Tonic Water last summer.

Blue Bottle’s Coffee Tonic was developed by company founder James Freeman and director of coffee Ben Brewer while both were on parental leave.

“They wanted to create something refreshing and coffee-forward, but less caffeinated and more effervescent,” explained Matthew Longwell, Blue Bottle’s product manager. “Espresso tonics can be murky, and often produce a beverage that tastes ‘shocked’ (a phenomenon that occurs when espresso is diluted rapidly into cool water). With our cold brew, flavors are clearer and cleaner.”

Longwell said it was designed for summer months, and has sold particularly well in their busiest New York cafes in Bryant Park and midtown east.

“It’s perfect in the afternoon — in cutting cold brew with tonic, there’s inherently less caffeine, which is the perfect answer to folks who want to get out of the office but don’t need another coffee,” he said. “Our sales reflect this, as the drink’s popularity peaks in the early afternoon.”

Stumptown introduced a drink of cold brew concentrate, Fever-Tree tonic water and Luxardo cherries in summer 2015. Head of Education Emily Rosenberg said the Stumptown team has “experimented with a whole host of seasonal beverages over the years that employ tonic or seltzer or other fizzy drinks.”

Since then they’ve expanded with drinks closer to “cold brew soda.” Starting with a concentrated brew of their Hair Bender Blend, typically carbonated water and some type of syrup, citrus and/or herbs are added. This year they have “Sweet Cherry Cold Brew,” which is actually housemade pomegranate grenadine, cold brew and carbonated water, and also “Piña Colada Cold Brew.”

Rosenberg has recently seen a rise in drinks based around cascara, which is the skin/fruit of the coffee cherry (the cherry surrounds the seed, which is what we think of as the coffee bean) that is dried down and steeped like tea.

Stumptown Coffee Roasters sells "Strange Magic," a cascara soda in a can, in its cafes.
Stumptown Coffee Roasters sells "Strange Magic," a cascara soda in a can, in its cafes. Photo Credit: Stumptown Coffee Roasters

“There have been lots of places sourcing cascara to do different beverages that have a dried fruit flavor, and taste similar to rose hips or hibiscus or raisins,” she said. “So it goes really well in a carbonated beverage. Right now we have a drink available in our cafes in cans that’s called ‘Strange Magic’; it’s a cascara soda that’s really delicious.”

Blue Bottle also launched a “Cascara Fizz” last year, and it can be seen on menus at Everyman Espresso and Gregorys Coffee.

Coffee as a drink “element”

Rosenberg said Stumptown tends to treat coffee as a mere ingredient in an overall beverage, which is how they’ve come up with different iced drinks over the years.

“We’ve always used our cafes as a place to experiment with coffee … sometimes it’s with brew methods, sometimes it’s with presentation, and sometimes it’s with coffee as an ingredient in another kind of drink,” she said. “[We’re] treating coffee as an element of something that’s more similar to a cocktail or mocktail, and just exploring the boundaries of what we do with coffee.”

Kobrick Coffee in Chelsea takes a similar approach, according to owner Scott Kobrick.

“We’re just trying to use our knowledge and expertise of mixology to come up with these great recipes,” he said. “We’re doing all sorts of coffee-centric, nonalcoholic concoctions.”

The Sweet Cherry Cold Brew from Stumptown Coffee Roasters.
The Sweet Cherry Cold Brew from Stumptown Coffee Roasters. Photo Credit: Stumptown Coffee Roasters

They’ve had a coffee tonic drink on the menu since they opened in 2014, which uses tonic syrup instead of tonic water — called the “Tiger Stripe and Tonic.” It has been one of their most popular iced drinks, along with the “Koco Freddo,” which involves cold brew, coconut oil and egg white.

They hope to grow their “mocktail” menu while expanding into the larger space next to their current location. One new ingredient they’re especially excited to incorporate? Cascara.

“For many years it was a waste product but now we’re actually using it,” he said. “Which is awesome for the environmental aspect, and because it has tons of antioxidants and a really interesting sour cherry taste … we’re using it in many different recipes, some of which are more wintry and include nutmeg and cinnamon.”

So, when it finally cools down, these drinks will take you right into fall.

Claire Leaden