The bittersweet contemporary classic makes a comeback
High-waisted jeans, shoulder pads, neon colours—if you had any doubts that the 1980s are back, the return of the Espresso Martini should lay them to rest.
This buzzy, bittersweet cocktail was perhaps the quintessential cocktail of an era in drinks culture that was otherwise, frankly, pretty grim.
In the ’80s, “spirits” meant vodka and “cocktails” were loaded with fruity juices, sweet liqueurs and coconut, oh, so much coconut. Forget fresh citrus—the sour mix for your Amaretto Sour was likely a powder. Sexual innuendo was the name of the game, with popular cocktails (which were generally shooters) called Slippery Nipple, Between the Sheets, Screaming Orgasm and Sex on the Beach.
The neon-bright, chemical-laden, ode-to-excess cherry on top of the decade was the 1988 Tom Cruise movie Cocktail, which defined cocktail culture for a generation as something that involved bouncing bottles off your elbows.
But saving the decade from sweet, slutty oblivion was the Espresso Martini.
It was invented in 1983 by Dick Bradsell, the dapper London barkeep who also created the Bramble, the Treacle, Russian Spring Punch and other renowned drinks. Known as the King of Cocktails, and often credited with ushering in the rebirth of the cocktail, he worked at a number of venues and—almost unheard of at the time—insisted on using fresh juices, chilled glassware and quality ingredients.
According to lore, Bradsell was working at Fred’s Club in Soho when a soon-to-be-famous model walked into his bar and asked for something “to wake me up and fuck me up.” Rumour has it that the model was Kate Moss or maybe Naomi Campbell, but Bradsell never told, and besides, Moss would have been nine and Campbell only 13, so neither is exactly likely.
At any rate, he happened to be standing next to the espresso machine, and with a splash of vodka, a slug of coffee liqueur, a shot of hot coffee and a whole lot of ice, he had invented a new classic. It was called the Vodka Espresso.
As ’80s glitter faded into 1990s grunge, a new cocktail style emerged: the Neo Martini, which was not a Martini at all, but any cocktail made with vodka and served in a V-shaped glass. There were dozens, maybe hundreds of them. (It’s even been suggested that the trend started in Vancouver, at Delilah’s in the Buchan Hotel, which boasted 60 “Martinis” on its list in the late 1980s.)
In any case, the Vodka Espresso was rebranded the Espresso Martini, and suddenly, it was everywhere. And then just as suddenly, it wasn’t, as a new generation of drinkers embraced painstakingly handcrafted cocktails and more subtle drinking trends.
But here we are now in 2022, emerging from a pandemic that upended every aspect of our lives and worrying about things we haven’t really considered since the last time the Espresso Martini was in style, including skyrocketing inflation, Russian aggression and fears of nuclear war.
I suspect a lot of us could use something these days to wake us up and fuck us up. The Espresso Martini is just the drink we need right now.
Make an Espresso Martini at home:
—by Joanne Sasvari