A brief history of coffee in cocktails

The cocktail ingredients in an Espresso Martini or Vodka Espresso are simple mix of a large shot of vodka, a large shot of freshly made espresso coffee, a dash of sugar syrup and a dash of coffee liqueur (or Kahlua) shaken and strained into a chilled martini glass.

Some claim that this coffee-based cocktail was created by UK legend Dick Bradsell on the spur of the moment at the infamous Fred's Bar in Soho in the ’80s, at the request of a now famous model who wanted a drink that would, “Wake me up, then f*** me up.”

The tipple created that night quickly gained fame and later became a signature drink at Pharmacy in Notting Hill, a bar which Dick co-opened with bad boy artist of note, Damien Hirst. The cocktail was known then as the Pharmaceutical Stimulant.

Needless to say, the espresso component of this drink is hugely important to the quality of the drink – in addition to adding flavour, a good espresso provides a thick, frothy foam that is crucial for the presentation of the drink, either with floating beans or cocoa graffiti.

Happily, many more bartenders feel the same way, and I’m meeting more barista trained bartenders or even bartender trained baristas. For one, Diageo World Class Malaysia 2010 winner Amanda Wan insists her first love is always going to be coffee.

Personally, I’ve used Nespresso Ristretto and Galliano Ristretto to mix the Ristretto Martini with Ketel One vodka. At a former workplace (Equinox in Swissotel, Singapore) a different version of the cocktail made with Zacapa 23 rum was just as widely requested during the brunch sessions.

On new-style coffee drinks, well, not so much new-style as a new mix, Joel Fraser, owner of The Cufflink Club in Singapore, uses a special Espresso Reduction from Oriole Coffee to mix his ‘Cuppa Joe’. He insists on foregoing the coffee liqueur in his rework, opting to just use coffee, vodka and a touch of sugar. For many, simpler is better and if it’s pure fantastic flavour you’re after, Joel’s drink hits the spot and of course, doesn’t let down on presentation either.

Different beans, different cocktail flavours

It’s also important to remember that with coffee, there’s so much more than just the beans and their source. There’s the roasting, grinding, pressure, temperature, flow-rates, solid ppm and the list goes on.

Although none of the substitutions of spirits, other liqueurs and different coffees are majorly ground breaking, it’s not because of us shaker-jockeys being lazy. It’s actually pretty tough to create something using coffee due to the strange and different flavours which emerge when it changes temperature or mixes with other liquids. Sometimes earthy tastes dominate, or extreme astringency, sourness or bitterness, make success when mixing hard.

I have found that playing on the earthy notes helps and I’m making some headway with juices such as pomegranate and cranberry in an attempt to make some iced-tea-styled coffee-based drinks… So please, experiment away! And remember ‘sharing is caring’ so I’d love to hear what others are doing with their beans and booze…


Richard Gillam likes to be called a drink-smith rather than a mixologist and has spent the last 15 years trying to escape the booze industry which has proved astonishingly futile. Currently working in Singapore as Group Beverage Manager for Refinery Concepts, he has recently opened The Pelican Seafood Bar and Grill and the second incarnation of Kinki, an urban Japanese dining concept, in Bangkok.