Essential coffee liqueurs for the perfect espresso martini; photos by Michael Hanlon
Not since the negroni has there been a cocktail with such a huge resurgence in popularity as the espresso martini. Firmly at the top of the list in the lexicon of modern classics, the espresso martini was created in London by Dick Bradsell in the 1980s. As the story goes, one evening a model, whose name was highly guarded by the drink’s creator until his death, ordered a drink from the bar that would,“wake me up and f*ck me up!” Ever the professional, Bradsell obliged and mixed together a concoction of fresh espresso, vodka, and a small amount of sugar and named it the “Vodka Espresso.” Due to the martini craze of the nineties, the name has changed, however, the espresso martini has been a hit from day one, only being eclipsed for a brief moment by vodka Red Bulls. When Dick Bradsell passed away in the mid-2000s, the espresso martini soared in popularity once again. My preference is to mix an espresso martini with less cream than you may find in other variations, the way Bradsell would have wanted it. Fresh espresso is always recommended as it gives the cocktail a layer of crema on top, although a strong cold brew works well. Here is a list of highly recommended coffee liqueurs to help you craft your own favorite espresso martini or the next modern classic.
Mr. Black Cold Brew Coffee Liqueur, 25% ABV
Taking the top spot for the ultimate espresso martini is Mr. Black Cold Brew liqueur. A long-time bartender favorite, this liqueur features a strong coffee flavor from cold brew and has more caffeine with less sugar than other options. In addition to making a great pairing with creamy ingredients and a variety of cocktails, Mr. Black is also certified Kosher. Its boozy, robust coffee flavor is smooth, and not too sweet, and, as the cocktail’s muse said, it’ll wake you up, and, well, you get it.
Espresso martini runner up
Galliano Ristretto Espresso Liqueur, 30% ABV
While the vanilla notes in classic Galliano are delicious in coffee, Galliano Ristretto does not contain any original Galliano. This is one of the only entries made with espresso instead of cold brew and might be the closest you can get to a classic espresso martini without espresso. Even if you are not a fan of Galliano, this is the perfect liqueur for any espresso lover.
St. George NOLA Coffee Liqueur, 25% ABV
St. George’s New Orleans–inspired addition to the realm of coffee liqueurs features Madagascar vanilla and chicory. Vodka-based and distilled, it is less sweet and packs a ton of flavor. While I think it is best to keep things simple and savor this liqueur on the rocks, it is exceptional in a variety of cocktails. St. George NOLA would taste delicious in a coffee old-fashioned, a revolver cocktail, or any drink containing fruit or smoky ingredients.
- 1 ounce vodka
- 1 shot of fresh espresso or ¾ ounce cold brew
- 3/4 ounce Mr. Black Cold Brew Liqueur
- 1/2 ounce raw sugar simple syrup (1:1, demerara sugar: water)
- 1/2 ounce Bailey’s Irish Cream or cream (optional)
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker and shake until cold and frothy. Strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with three coffee beans.
Griffo, 25% ABV
Griffo is a cold brewed and five-times-distilled vodka-based liqueur with a simplicity that allows other flavors to shine through. I use this versatile liqueur for anything from a Black Russian to tiki drinks.
Classic and dessert cocktails
Kahlúa, 20% ABV
Kahlúa is not only the king of coffee liqueurs, but it also paved the way many years before any competition came along and still remains at the top. Rum-based and made with sugar cane, Kahlúa has been the inspiration for many enduring classic cocktails such as the Mudslide, White Russian, B-52 shot, and of course, the Espresso Martini. Due to the rum, cane sugar, and vanilla bean, this Mexican liqueur has a creamy and nutty flavor with a pleasant sweetness. The coffee flavor is pronounced but not too bitter. Kahlúa is excellent paired with rum, chocolate, or tropical fruit, or over ice cream.
For the wild card: Jägermeister Cold Brew Coffee, 33% ABV
With notes of menthol and anise, the liqueur has a base of Jägermeister combined with cold brew. A full-bodied and unique entry that should not be missed, especially as a shot.
Pinkies out: Grand Brulot VSOP Cafe Cognac, 80% ABV
Hailing from the Cognac region of France, this liquor is Cognac-based and aged in oak barrels to marry the flavors of expertly made cognac and coffee. Finish the evening with flair and enjoy this highend liquor in spirit-forward cocktails such as a Sazerac or Manhattan.
For the socially conscious: Du Nord Cafe Frieda Coffee Liqueur, 26% ABV
This groundbreaking distillery is Black-owned and projects a strong social message while maintaining ethical production standards. Sadly, it is only available online, so far, so I have not yet had the pleasure of trying this liqueur. dunordsocialspirits.com
Tequila, just because: Patrón XO Cafe Liqueur, 35% ABV
Patrón XO starts sweet, then quickly finishes dry on the palate. The tequila base is subtle enough to derive the unique flavors of tequila and marry well with the coffee, so if you don’t enjoy tequila you will still enjoy this liqueur. With rich and bold flavors but smooth, Patrón XO is excellent on its own, in tequila drinks, used in desserts, or enjoyed on the rocks. Be sure to grab a bottle while you can as it was recently discontinued.
Here are a few great supporting spirits to complement your coffee creations.