From the Irish Coffee’s origins as a means of keeping sleepy travelers warm in the ‘40s to Four Loko’s early days as an alcoholic energy drink, combining caffeine and booze is certainly not a new phenomenon. But it’s hard to point to one example with more recent ubiquity than the Espresso Martini. Having enjoyed a rise in popularity stateside in the late 2010s, the cocktail has seen a resurgence in the U.S. bar scene and solidified itself as one of the top 10 most ordered cocktails in the country.

With the Espresso Martini’s omnipresence, many of the world’s trendiest cocktail programs have since tinkered with coffee as an ingredient in a number of their creations. Coffee appears in some way in at least 46 cocktails at 26 of North America’s top 50 bars, with only 12 of those drinks appearing in the form of an Espresso Martini. Meanwhile, only three of those Espresso Martinis align with the standard shaken recipe of vodka, coffee liqueur, and espresso.

Beyond the Espresso Martini, the rising trend of coffee behind the bar points to the changing preferences and evolution of American palates. Namely, more of an acceptance of bitter as a flavor profile, which we’ve borne witness to with the stratospheric rise of bitter cocktails and culinary dishes all made with high-quality ingredients.

Get the latest in beer, wine, and cocktail culture sent straight to your inbox.

What Once Was Old Made New Again

After laying dormant since the ‘90s, the Espresso Martini reemerged with a vengeance, reclaiming the upper-meets-downer throne from the hedonists’ classic, Red Bull Vodka.

“When the Espresso Martini started popping back up everywhere, we were making them, but didn’t put it on our menu for weeks,” says Morgan Weber, the co-owner and beverage director of Agricole Hospitality in Houston. “We were looking at the requests and the records at the end of the night, and this one drink that wasn’t even on the menu was outselling even Margaritas.”

Aside from the clear draw of caffeinating while consuming, the Espresso Martini’s return likely has much to do with its approachable profile. “The Espresso Martini is weird because we have what I would call sophisticated drinkers who love them and, for lack of a better word, unsophisticated drinkers who love them,” Weber says.

Only helping the Espresso Martini’s cause is the increased care taken in sourcing higher-quality ingredients to make the cocktail. Not only are both vodka and espresso higher quality today than they were in the 1980s, but the coffee liqueurs available on today’s bar scene blow anything the drink’s creator Dick Bradsell had at his disposal out of the water.

Bartender staple Mr Black Coffee Liqueur, which sources beans from high-quality growing regions around the globe, was the fastest-growing coffee liqueur in the world from 2017–2021, and its recent sale to international conglomerate Diageo will only help the brand expand further. Also producing beloved, quality coffee liqueurs are California’s St. George Spirits and the recently introduced Cazadores Café. When high-quality products are put in front of the modern era’s high-caliber mixologists, it’s easy to fathom how delicious cocktails take off.

“We didn’t have Campari in our hands for a long time. We didn’t have Aperol. The idea of Chartreuse was lost on the bar world for a long time,” says Stephen Kurpinsky, U.S. brand ambassador for Mr Black Coffee Liqueur, who views the Espresso Martini as an essential starting point for coffee cocktails. “The Espresso Martini started the conversation. Now, people are wondering what else they can do with it.”

Actually, Bitter Isn’t All That Bad

While it may be simple to point to the rise of the modern classic as the most obvious reason behind the trending ingredient, stopping here would neglect one large, overarching theme guiding coffee’s explosive growth at the bar: American palates are evolving.

“We thought, ‘If the coffee thing is going to be around, how can we tinker around and play with it in cocktails?’”

In the same time that the Espresso Martini has enjoyed the spotlight, Americans have uncovered a love for bitter ingredients that’s reflected across cocktail menus nationwide. The Negroni is sitting pretty as the world’s most popular cocktail. A growing interest in amaro has carved out a niche for U.S. distillers to start producing their own. Americans are, essentially, relearning that bitter doesn’t equal bad.

“Bitter flavors are essential to balancing cocktails. It’s the reason why an Old Fashioned is entirely more mixable than a Julep,” Kurpinsky says. “The Old Fashioned is one of the most ordered cocktails in the world because you’re able to combat and balance the sweetness and booze with bitterness.”

Now, mixologists are adding a roasted bitterness profile to their most beloved creations, bringing their favorite morning beverage into play. Such is the case at Eight Row Flint operated by the Agricole Hospitality group, whose menu features a Carajillo made with sotol, corn liqueur, crème de cacao, cold brew, piloncillo (unprocessed cane sugar), and orange blossom water.

After the Espresso Martini continued to dominate cocktail sales across the United States, Weber was looking for new ways to experiment with coffee and found it south of the border.

“Everywhere you go [in Mexico], there is going to be some iteration of a Carajillo, which got our wheels turning,” he says. “We thought, ‘If the coffee thing is going to be around, how can we tinker around and play with it in cocktails?’”

While Weber says that the Espresso Martini still outsells the Carajillo at Eight Row Flint about 5 to 1, people now more than ever seem to be more interested in the world of coffee cocktails.

The U.S. Embraces Coffee Culture

While credit is due to the Espresso Martini for opening up the world of coffee cocktails, the caffeinated beverage’s continued presence behind the bar won’t be going away any time soon as coffee culture in the United States continues to grow and evolve.

After all, before the Espresso Martini shot to the top in the United States, it was already considered to be the favorite cocktail of many Australians, New Zealeanders, and Londoners, all whom have enjoyed flourishing coffee culture outside of its use in cocktails.

For decades, coffee in the United States was treated as little more than a way to energize in the morning before a long, likely stressful day. It was purely a means to an end. However, as the third-wave coffee movement, which emphasizes the importance of quality and coffee as an art form, permeates the U.S., coffee drinkers as a whole — not just those who enjoy it in cocktails — are paying more attention to the beverage’s nuances and complexities.

“Coffee is a known flavor, and one that people have a loving relationship with. It wakes them up every day, it keeps them going, it’s something that is a central part of many people’s lives.”

Americans are reaching less for the stirrable instant coffee grounds enjoyed by older generations and exploring individual bean varieties. They’re paying more attention to coffee as a crop, and discovering where and how it’s grown in addition to the drink’s subtle undernotes.

Meanwhile, with cafes across the country forced to shutter during the pandemic’s lockdowns, Americans had more time than ever to explore and experiment with coffee at home.

“Coffee is a known flavor, and one that people have a loving relationship with. It wakes them up every day, it keeps them going, it’s something that is a central part of many people’s lives,” Kurpinsky says. “But it has more aroma and flavor compounds than wine does, with this huge laundry list of ingredients that pair well with it, and people are really discovering that.”

With the third-wave coffee movement happening at the very same moment as the cocktail renaissance of the 2000s and continuing into today, it’s no surprise that coffee fits into the cocktail arena perfectly. As both movements are tied to using high-quality ingredients and employing the utmost care when crafting, bartenders can now trust that the coffee products at their disposal can be used in the formation of a first-class cocktail.

“It’s just a great ingredient in cocktails, and I don’t see it going away,” Weber says. “People aren’t even drinking them as an after-dinner thing or energizing thing anymore. Maybe they’ll get burnt out eventually, but it doesn’t seem to be happening any time soon.”