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Espresso martini making a return to NYC cocktail menus

Mixologists are putting their twist on the vodka cocktail, which enjoyed a stint in the 1990s. 

Dante elevates the espresso martini with its take,

Dante elevates the espresso martini with its take, called the nouveau espresso.  Photo Credit: Nickolaus Hines

The espresso martini is making some buzz — again.

The caffeinated libation — a relic of 1990s cocktails along with cosmopolitans and other sweetened “tinis” – is finding renewed appreciation on cocktail menus across the city.

“There’s a little bit of a mix of nostalgia and the fact that, when done well, an espresso martini really is a good drink with some unique properties,” says Jim Kearns, beverage director at Golden Age Hospitality, which includes the Manhattan spots Slowly Shirley, The Happiest Hour, Tijuana Picnic and Acme. “Dick Bradsell, the drink’s creator, passed away a couple of years ago, and that also helped to revive popularity and attention to his drinks.”

Bradsell created the drink in the early ’80s in London after, according to lore, a customer asked for a drink that would both wake her up and get her drunk. He came up with vodka, simple syrup, coffee liqueur and fresh espresso.

When the cocktail — aka the vodka espresso — made its way to the United States, many bars lacked espresso machines so swapped in drip coffee. It was lackluster and often overly sweet and didn't stick around for very long.

Conor Myers, the creative director at the Financial District bar Underdog, is from Ireland, where the drink never lost popularity. That’s the story for many European countries and Australia, where espresso machines are more common.

“[Espresso martinis have] just been made very wrong in the U.S. for a heck of a long time, so it doesn’t surprise me why it disappeared,” Myers says.

Lately, though, NYC cocktail bars have started offering elevated takes on the cocktail using espresso and coffee liqueurs.

Gramercy’s Dear Irving is known for its espresso martini, as is Dante, a historic spot in Greenwich Village that’s part cocktail bar, part coffee shop. Dante keeps quality coffee liqueurs like Caffè Amaro from Kansas City and Australian brand Mr. Black on hand for its take — called the nouveau espresso — which also adds banana, coconut and chocolate liqueurs, cayenne pepper and a poppy seed garnish to the traditional recipe.

Some bars are also swapping out the standard vodka. At Underdog, Myers makes one with Irish whiskey, and The Owl’s Tail recently opened on the Upper West Side with a Guinness-laced espresso martini that’s already a top seller. “No one orders just one,” co-owner Stephanie Bondulich says.

Kearns’ recipe trades espresso for cold brew, and also adds the coffee liqueur Galliano Ristretto. The bars he works with don’t list it on the menu, but people regularly ask for it that the classic ingredients are always on hand.

There’s plenty of room for bars to add espresso martinis to their menus, too, “especially starting with restaurant bars that have the ability to have a good coffee program,” says Meaghan Dorman, bar director at Dear Irving.

“I think the overlapping element is people ordering espresso martinis are out to have fun,” Dorman says. “They want a pop of caffeine with their cocktail, so there are probably more to come.”

Shake things up

To try your hand at the drink, here are two takes of varying ingredient needs.

 Jim Kearns’ espresso martini

  • 1/4 oz. demerara syrup
  • 3/4 oz. Galliano Ristretto
  • 1 oz. Cold Brew
  • 1 1/2 oz. vodka

Shake and strain into a martini glass.

Dante’s nouveau espresso

  • 1 1/2 oz. Grey Goose
  • 1/4 oz. Caffè Amaro
  • 1/4 oz. Giffard banana liqueur
  • 1/4 oz. Kalani coconut liqueur
  • 1/4 oz. Marie Brizard white crème de cacao
  • 1/4 oz. simple syrup
  • 1 1/2 oz. espresso coffee
  • Healthy pinch of cayenne pepper

Shake hard and strain into a medium coupe. Garnish with poppy seeds.

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