The late-’90s-early-’00s are back. But if low-rise jeans, bandana tops and skinny scarves send you screaming, relive this era with a drink.
Start with the vintage cocktail du jour: the espresso martini. This coffee-and-vodka cocktail has a storied, but disputed, history. According to mixologist lore, in the 1980s, a model walked into Fred’s Club in London and asked iconic bartender Dick Bradsell for a drink to “wake me up, then f-ck me up.” It caught on and enjoyed its heyday in the ’90s, A.K.A. the martini era—a time when any vodka drink in a V-shaped glass could be ‘tinified (remember the Appletini?).
While the espresso martini never truly disappeared, it began trending again in the 2020s. Like a grown-up iced coffee, the perpetually popular cocktail features vodka, coffee and coffee liquor. It’s like everyone wanted to “wake up and get messed up” during those fleeting moments between lockdowns—or at home.
“One of our most-requested cocktails is the espresso martini and we have it in our kits because it’s so popular,” says beverage expert and consultant Evelyn Chick, who owns Love of Cocktails, a cocktail kit and classes company.
Kristen Voisey, behind Toronto mini chain Cocktail Emporium, has also felt the espresso martini boom. She and her team introduced a DIY kit in 2020. “It has been one of our best-selling kits so far,” she says.
At a time of uncertainty, nostalgia is comforting. From TV shows (think the Sex and the City and How I Met Your Mother reboots) and fashion (flared leggings, shrunken cardigans and tiny shoulder bags) to food and drink, it’s like we’re living in a Y2K time warp. Plus, at the bar, cocktails from this era are happy making. “They have fun garnishes, colours and glassware,” says Voisey.
Along with espresso martinis, she’s seen Long Island iced teas and cosmos appearing on menus. For Chick, cocktails from the ’90s and early aughts are simple and easy to recreate at home, unlike the molecular mixology that dominated over the past few years. The drinks have short ingredient lists and are often shaken or stirred—basic bartending techniques. That’s why Chick thinks people gravitated toward them while staying home.
When dining out lately, she’s noticed Champagne-based cocktails and the Tommy’s Margarita (a margarita popularized in the ’90s made with agave syrup instead of simple syrup and Triple Sec) cropping up. With refined sugars on many a no-no list, an agave-sweetened cocktail sounds more contemporary than retro. “It makes sense that the simple cocktails are coming [back] because you can put your own spin on it just by being aware of what you can and cannot have,” she says.
And it’s not just margaritas getting a health(ier) halo. Along with nostalgic drinks, conscious cocktails are a thing now—and that includes the espresso martini. “The espresso martinis you would have today are way better than the ones they made in the ’90s due to the current focus on quality,” Voisey says. Think locally roasted coffee beans and Canadian-made liquors and spirits.
The Cocktail Emporium kit features preservative-free demerara syrup and a Split Tree cold brew coffee mix made in Ottawa. Love of Cocktails packages together Toronto’s Station Cold Brew and Vodkow Cream Liquor, a lactose- and gluten-free Bailey’s dupe from Almonte, Ontario, made with Canadian dairy.
If you’d rather free mix sans kit, find a basic recipe and try an espresso martini at home—with a personalized twist.
1. Choose your base spirit
Espresso martinis are traditionally made with vodka, but you can make one with any spirit—tequila is a popular option.
2. Brew your coffee
No espresso machine? No problem. Chick recommends swapping in cold brew—if it’s a can of nitro cold brew even better, since it has a similar mouth feel to espresso. Just use more cold brew than you would espresso to keep the flavour profile intact.
3. Make it creamy
Coffee liquor, like Kahlúa, is standard. If you prefer Irish cream, add it instead. Or try a flavoured, made-in-Canada cream liquor.
4. Customize it
You could keep your espresso martini as a three-ingredient cocktail. Or, just like your morning brew, customize it. “It’s such an interesting drink to be able to twist on because there are literally endless things you can do to it and still keep the integrity of the original drink,” says Chick.
She’s seen espresso martinis made with Amaro, which adds herbal intensity. She also has a recipe for a chai espresso martini if you’re looking for a hint of spice. Some espresso martini recipes also call for simple syrup, if you prefer your cocktails on the sweet side.
5. Shake and serve
Froth up your drink in an ice-filled cocktail shaker and pour it into a cocktail glass or coupe. If you don’t have a shaker, Chick says an ice-filled mason jar or even a protein shaker bottle would work in a flash. Top your cocktail with three coffee beans—or drink it straight up.