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What is the Perfect Coffee Cocktail?

After years of being overlooked as a proper cocktail component, the bar world is finally, er, waking up to coffee. Clinton Cawood takes a look at the techniques and the products driving espresso from cup to coupette

Dick Bradsell’s classic Espresso Martini – Vodka Espresso or Pharmaceutical Stimulant by its former names – might be near-compulsory on cocktail lists in one form or another nowadays, but it wasn’t always so. After all, it wasn’t long ago that just finding a decent coffee in the UK was nearly impossible, especially for the undercaffeinated.

However, the country’s new appreciation for coffee in recent years has become inextricably linked with the drink’s increasing prevalence in cocktails, in various forms. The conditions are ideal. We’ve got more local, artisan roasters, more experimentation with coffee in brewing methods and bartenders have more coffee-related spirits and liqueurs to choose from than ever before.

‘There’s a closer affinity between the coffee world and the bartending community, which has been slowly gaining momentum,’ says Mike Aikman, who would know, as he's not only part of the team behind Bramble and other Edinburgh bars, but is also now co-founder of coffee liqueur Cross Brew. ‘There’s been a rise in coffee culture generally, both in the UK and globally – the third wave,’ he adds.

‘When I moved here from Australia five years ago, it was all Costa and Starbucks,’ confirms Tim Laferla, former Adam Handling group bar manager. ‘Now there’s a new local roaster popping up every five minutes.’

Caffeine culture

As coffee operation manager for Soho House, David Robson is at the coalface, having trained hundreds of bartenders about coffee. ‘The increased interest in coffee cocktails may be due to customer demand, with coffee having a firmer place in our culture, and bartenders being more educated on coffee and seeing it as more relevant.’

The most obvious consequence is that recent ubiquity of the Espresso Martini in all its forms, from faithful incarnations to on-tap nitro serves. ‘Shunned for so long, bars and bartenders seem to have decided it is fun again, and we are also seeing some pretty innovative twists, which is great!’ says Aikman.

But they’re also moving beyond this classic and its twists, with the Negroni next in coffee-focused bartenders’ sights, it seems, along with variations on the Old Fashioned and Manhattan. Caravan’s Negroni replaces the classic recipe’s sweet vermouth with a coffee syrup, retaining its equal-parts measurements. Boki Seven Dials, meanwhile, infuses Campari with coffee, mixing that with gin and vermouth.

Hot drinks haven’t been overlooked either, particularly the classic Irish coffee – most likely led by The Dead Rabbit in New York's efforts. Teeling Whiskey has taken ownership of this classic too, incorporating a spiced stout syrup and orange-zested cream in its version, together with freshly-brewed coffee and Teeling Small Batch into its signature serve.

For a contemporary example of what’s possible when the worlds of craft coffee and cocktails collide, look no further than Laferla’s Good and Evil cocktail on the list at Eve in London. The liquid component of the drink is a clarified White Russian, which incorporates a coffee infusion/distillate. The drink’s ice cube, on the other hand, is essentially a Black Russian, made with cold-brew coffee, maple syrup and Fernet-Branca. Over time these Yin and Yang elements combine, moving the drink from White to Black Russian.

There’s a closer affinity between the coffee world and the bartending community, which has been slowly gaining momentum


New brews

Innovation from bartenders has been matched by drinks producers in recent years, with vast numbers of coffee-related liqueurs hitting the market. Some have focused primarily on the coffee, and brewing methods, like the highly successful cold-press Mr Black. The company’s next product, coming to the UK in early 2018, is Mr Black Coffee Amaro, consisting of cold brew coffee and distilled and macerated botanicals – in line with the new way bartenders are using coffee in cocktails such as the Negroni.

A product in the pipeline to keep an eye out for is a cold-brew concentrate for speed rails from Sandows. Soho House’s Robson has used early versions of it to create kegged nitro Espresso Martinis.

Established brands have been showing their support for the growing coffee cocktail movement too. Tia Maria, for example, offers coffee-curious bartenders a variety of training options, including in-bar sessions, as well as coffee masterclasses at coffee bar Chapter 72 in Bermondsey. It also offers in-depth Roaster Academy sessions with various roaster partners.

Grey Goose put its weight behind coffee cocktails recently, introducing the Grey Goose Café Gourmand for venues. This is an end-of-the-meal serve consisting of an Espresso Martini made with cafetière coffee, alongside ‘mini sweet delights’, a pairing created with Parisian Baristas La Brûlerie de Belleville and French pastry chef Yann Menguy. Meanwhile, Ketel One has been promoting the Espresso Martini as its hero serve, as has Courvoisier with the launch of Café Courvoisier last summer – a reminder of the classic’s versatility when it comes to its base spirit.

Whether it’s big brands taking caffeinated drinks to the masses, support from small roasters and liqueur brands, or bartenders finding new ways to incorporate the coffee bean into mixed drinks, it looks like the future of coffee cocktails is bright – and of course we’ll be wide awake to see it.

Brew school

There’s more to this than muddling some coffee beans, you know. In fact, don’t do that at all. Instead, take some tips from the pros on how to develop your coffee options…

You could do worse than take coffee-cocktail advice from the American Bar at The Savoy’s Martin Hudak, considering he’s 2017’s global winner of the World Coffee In Good Spirits competition. ‘Know a coffee’s origin, and know the roaster,’ he begins. ‘Don’t only use coffee as a modifier, and don’t be afraid to experiment with techniques such as cold brews, nitro, and infusions.’

Caravan Coffee Roaster’s Josh McIntyre suggests spending time in some coffee shops. ‘If you don’t know your Kalita from your V60, ask questions. Baristas, like bartenders, love to share their knowledge and passion.’

You can use coffee in smaller quantities as a “bitter”,’ says former Adam Handling group bar manager Tim Laferla. ‘It works really well in this regard with drinks like Manhattans and Old Fashioneds. I would suggest trying a few different styles of coffee, because some can be very acidic, while others very bitter. Work with a local roaster who can show you a few different styles and advise on how to get the best out of those specific beans.’

Origin Coffee’s Dan Fellows, who incidentally will be representing the UK in the World Coffee In Good Spirits next year, says that, considering the wide variety of flavours coffee can provide, it’s important to choose the right one for the job. ‘You could pair a delicate washed coffee with floral characteristics with a botanical, complex gin-based cocktail, or a jammy, sweet, naturally-processed African coffee with heavier, darker spirits.’

Luxardo global brand ambassador Gareth Franklin has some practical tips for incorporating coffee into cocktails in interesting ways. ‘Experiment with filter coffee, or even a sous vide machine,’ he says. ‘You can infuse spirits directly with coffee beans too.’

Barista in a bottle

The coffee-and-booze revolution is not only being fought in cocktail shakers, but on back bars everywhere too, with the last few years seeing a steady stream of new java-related products. We sampled a wide selection of them to see how they stack up... and stayed awake until dawn


This one’s as far from fad coffee liqueur as you can get, considering its recipe goes back more than 150 years, and yet it doesn’t have the recognition in the UK that it probably deserves. When it says ‘liquore di vero caffè espresso’ on Borghetti’s label, it’s not kidding – the real espresso is unmistakeable, from the punchy hit of coffee on the nose, to the rich and bittersweet palate.
25% abv, £21/70cl, Hi-Spirits, 01932 252100

Chase Espresso Vodka

This one’s as far from fad coffee liqueur as you can get, considering its recipe goes back more than 150 years, and yet it doesn’t have the recognition in the UK that it probably deserves. When it says ‘liquore di vero caffè espresso’ on Borghetti’s label, it’s not kidding – the real espresso is unmistakeable, from the punchy hit of coffee on the nose, to the rich and bittersweet palate.
25% abv, £21/70cl, Hi-Spirits, 01932 252100


Cold brew has been all the rage in coffee for some time now, for its lower levels of acidity and bitterness, and this has been picked up by a number of coffee liqueur producers too. Dorset’s Conker Spirit employs this method when creating its liqueur, using locally-roasted beans. The result is nothing but bright, pure coffee notes on the nose, leading to well-balanced sweetness on the palate.
25% abv, £27.58/ 70cl, Master of Malt, 0800 033 7949

Cross Brew

From a team that includes Mike Aikman and Jason Scott – the duo behind Edinburgh bars Bramble, The Last Word Saloon and Lucky Liquor Co – and Ericka Duffy, whose background is in coffee, not to mention perfumery and more, you’d expect a lot from Cross Brew. Even before reading the label’s claim to being a ‘damn fine coffee liqueur’. Fortunately, it lives up to it, with its deep and fruity aroma followed by a sweet, rich chocolate-and-coffee palate. Decadent rather than delicate.
20% abv, £24/ 70cl,

Fair Café liqueur

Ethical spirit brand Fair pre-empted the recent interest in all things coffee liqueur by a few years, and has become the best-selling product in the line up since then. The nose is more reminiscent of dark roast Italian coffee than anything third-wave or cold-brew, with some balanced, nutty, sweet coffee notes on the palate.
22% abv, £16.25/35cl, The Whisky Exchange, 020 8838 9388

Hundred Fifty lbs

A relatively recent entrant to the cold-brew liqueur category, Hundred Fifty lbs is more focused on the coffee itself than most. Two very particular beans go into the blend, from El Salvador and Cameroon respectively. It’s undoubtedly cold-brew on both nose and palate, with a light structure that’s full of complex coffee flavour, albeit on the sweeter side of the spectrum.
19% abv, £21.95/50cl,

Mr Black

Cold press coffee liqueur pioneer Mr Black has certainly played its part in elevating coffee cocktails both in the UK and in its native Australia, in part a result of its expertise as both a coffee roaster and a distiller. Incorporating a blend of Arabica coffee beans, as well as Australian grain spirit, it’s all about the coffee on the nose and palate, with significant but well-balanced sweetness.
25% abv, £29/ 70cl, Love Drinks, 020 7501 9630

Patrón XO Cafe

Patrón Tequila’s coffee offering has had its fair share of success as a chilled shot over the years, but it’s also a reminder that the base spirit can play an important part in a coffee liqueur too. Intense coffee and toffee on the nose don’t hide the tequila’s aromas, and this influence becomes even more pronounced on the palate, where it’s joined by rich dark chocolate, preserved cherries, and sweet coffee.
35% abv, £34.99/ 70cl, Brown-Forman UK, 020 7478 1300

This article was updated from one that was originally published in imbibe live magazine on May 03, 2018