The COVID-19 pandemic, now entering its third year, has been a catalyst for the development of new trends and the return of forgotten ones across myriad industries. Just beyond the 40-year mark, the 1980s have come back in full force in design, music, fashion … and mixology with the espresso martini.
The cocktail, which was first invented in 1983 by British bartender Dick Bradsell, has had a notable resurgence in 2021. The potent blend of vodka, espresso, coffee liqueur (like Kahlúa or Tia Maria), and simple syrup has popped up on bar menus across the country – a response to the American public looking for an energizing yet relaxing antidote to today’s mercurial world.
“Drink trends go in waves. At one point it was the Moscow Mule, then a couple years ago it was the Aperol Spritz, and right now it’s the espresso martini,” says Emily Russell, lead bartender at FIG restaurant at Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows. “Even though it’s cold, it’s definitely hot as a drink.”
The resurgence of the espresso martini, Russell thinks, is thanks to a maturing bar audience. “One of my theories is that a lot of people who are drinking them are people who went to college when Vodka Red Bulls were popular. So I think that that crowd is slightly older now and it’s a little bit classier than a Vodka Red Bull,” she says.
“I think that as coffee culture and the intricacies of coffee gets more and more interesting to people, they’re constantly trying to figure out more interesting ways to have it,” says Walker Marsh, head of beverage for private chef company Wholesam. “The espresso martini is the ultimate keep-the-night-going after-dinner [drink]. People want to come out, especially now after being cooped up for a little bit, and they want to party more and more.”
Marsh is also a bar lead for Nostalgia, a bar opening in Santa Monica in January. He’s been making espresso martinis for years, but they were generally made with the standard recipe. Now, he’s experimenting by making them with reposado tequila, cold brew coffee liqueur, and Taiwanese boba cafe-inspired sea salt whipped cream.
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“I’ve definitely noticed that the more creative bars and innovative cocktail programs in the city have been having more and more fun with it, switching up the liquor they put in it and switching up the type of coffee they use, elevating it from something that’s one standard recipe into a recipe family that has so many fun ways to branch out,” Marsh says.
In her version at FIG, Russell flash chills one shot of espresso over ice – “so that it doesn’t dilute the espresso,” she notes – and omits the simple syrup because “most people are health conscious in L.A.”
As a private bartender for people in entertainment, Marsh is also creatively challenged to reinvent the espresso martini as a way to incorporate specific requests. “A lot of celebrities are now branching out into their own liquor companies. So they like to see how we can play with those brands, those flavors, and still give them something they want. It’s like: ‘OK, I want something with coffee, but you’ve got to use my stuff. Let’s figure that out.’”
Nostalgia does not have a coffee machine yet, something Marsh is actively working to change ahead of the bar’s opening next month. “We need to have an espresso martini on the menu because people are going to ask for that,” he says of the cocktail’s popularity.
In Los Angeles, several hot spots are serving up their version of 2021’s most in-demand cocktail: The Maybourne in Beverly Hills, Met Him at a Bar, Granville, Employees Only and The Village Idiot, just to name a few.
“I feel like it kind of disappeared for a while,” says Carla Lorenzo, Noble 33 beverage director for Hotel Figueroa’s Bar Magnolia, Café Fig, Sparrow and La Casita. “I’ve been in this industry for 17 years. And I would say in the past year and a half it went from, like, zero to 100.”
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Lorenzo remembers the espresso martini having a miniature moment about a decade ago, but their popularity quickly waned. “Old Fashioneds started coming back, you know? When Mad Men [came out], I think classic cocktails started to become popular again,” she says. “Espresso martinis were in that mix — they got a little bump then — but nothing compared to now.”
At Hotel Figueroa, Lorenzo’s team makes their own hazelnut orgeat in-house, and uses amaro and a vanilla bean foam (which gets bruleed tableside with a torch) for their twist on the frequently requested espresso martini.
“I think it’ll be popular for a couple more years, to be honest. I don’t see it dying down at all, especially as things are opening back up and people are out and about, an espresso martini is not something that you would actually make at home, so as people are going out and partying a little bit more, they’re always looking for a drink that’s like a kind of an upper,” Lorenzo says.
As far as what’s next, Russell predicts that the espresso martini will stick around for a while, but that non-traditional tequila- and mezcal-based versions will explode in popularity. She also plans to add a carajillo to FIG’s menu soon, which is a popular cocktail in Spain that uses Licor 43, a vanilla-flavored Spanish liqueur, often shaken with espresso. “I think that might trend as a brunch drink,” Russell says.
Lorenzo’s educated guess is that non-alcoholic beverages will continue to carve out their own lane in the bar scene, and that pop culture references (along with TikTok videos) will continue to dictate which drinks become trendy to order.
“I think as people hear about old drinks they’ll kind of remake them as their own, just kind of like the espresso martini,” Lorenzo says, adding that syrupy-sweet cocktails (like Midori and Amaretto sours) that were in their heyday in the ’90s are likely up next. Another way to trend-forecast cocktails? Pay attention to which ones are most exciting to look at.
Says Lorenzo: “Every time I’m writing a menu or making any cocktail, especially now with TikTok and Instagram, we always think about the aesthetics of it and how the customers are going to experience it. Anything tableside is a big factor in how drinks become public.”
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