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As lockdown eases, the caffeinated cocktail classic is helping drinkers stay awake at the bar
The espresso martini has become so popular Cloak Bar, it’s now on the takeout menu.
It’s not just you: espresso martinis are everywhere. Seriously, try walking past a patio or going into a bar without seeing one sitting on a table, or six being carried by on a large tray toward a group of friends. The cocktail, traditionally made up of espresso, vodka and coffee liqueur, is not just the cocktail of the summer – it’s sticking around for the fall, too.
The drink is so popular it’s been showing up in paparazzi photos of Larry David and Timothée Chalamet and in the hands of the cast of Bravo’s Summer House. But even if the rest of the world is really into it, there’s something special about how obsessed Toronto is with it.
“Toronto seems to latch on to a drink and then not order anything else,” says Kelsey Ramage co-founder of recently closed drinks delivery service Dolly Trolley. “It’s crazy, I’ve never seen anywhere else do that in my entire career.”
Dolly Trolley was selling a bottled takeout version of an espresso martini, and since July that drink has accounted for one-third of her total sales. It was so popular that Ramage’s new pop-up Halloween bar found a spooky way to serve the drink. When Black Lagoon opens on October 14, it will be serving a Moon Ritual – essentially an espresso martini with whiskey and bitters.
Before the drink took over Toronto, espresso martinis were created in the 1990s in London, England, by a bartender named Dick Bradsell. The legend is that either Naomi Campbell or Kate Moss came into his bar and said she wanted a drink that would, “Wake me up, then fuck me up.”
This is basically the same reason the drink is popular today, says Dana McCauley, chief experience officer at the Canadian Food Innovation Network. After nearly two years of staying home every night and getting lots of sleep, everyone has become a couch potato.
“We’re back out, but people are packing it in a bit earlier, so if we do decide that we’re going to stay out late, we want that jolt of caffeine,” says McCauley.
Compounding the popularity is the stigma around vodka Red Bull, says Jasmine Daya, the owner of Pravda Vodka Bar. She says it’s frowned upon for bartenders to serve that drink to patrons and for customers to order it. But vodka Red Bull and its effects are still popular, making the espresso martini the socially acceptable alternative.
Pravda’s version, called the Marxist espresso, is the bar’s number one seller right now. Recently, Pravda’s espresso machine broke and Daya had to rush to buy three large jugs of espresso from a restaurant next door to tide over the hoards. She has now brought in a backup machine, just in case.
“The key to an excellent espresso martini is ensuring that it’s shaken until the point that you’ve got foam at the top,” says Daya. “When we train our bartenders, we tell them to shake it more than any other drink because you know the flavour is achieved when you get that foam.”
That signature brown froth is a calling card for the drink, and also makes it unique compared to any other cocktail, says McCauley. Usually, to get that layer you would need to use egg whites. But there are a growing number of vegans and vegetarians in the city who don’t want their drink topped with egg whites, which could also be driving some of the drink’s resurgence in popularity, she adds.
Another ember that lit the fire for this trend is that while in lockdown a lot of bartenders were returning to the classics… but with a twist. They were posting cocktail tutorials on their Instagram pages, says Farzam Fallah, the head bartender at Marben and Cloak Bar. That meant that when people came out of lockdown, they went looking for the espresso martini.
You won’t find one on Marben or Cloak Bar’s menu though; Fallah considers it such a classic that it doesn’t even need to be listed. He’s got all of the ingredients and can make it on demand like a Manhattan or an old-fashioned.
But after noticing a lot more people asking for the drink, he added a bottled version to Marben Market (the restaurant’s pantry service) in June. Even though it’s something every bartender has the ingredients for, it’s not something everyone at home will have, which makes it the perfect to-go cocktail, he says.
“It’s one of those things you wouldn’t make at home. You’d need a bottle of Kahlua and to be able to make espresso,” says Fallah. “People weren’t getting treated to it at home and it’s a local favourite so it made sense to have on our takeout list.”
No matter how good the drink though, as more bars add espresso martinis to their menus and more people are drinking it, the more it will fall out of favour. By next summer, everyone will have moved on to something else.
“Once people start seeing someone they don’t value drinking espresso martinis, like their aunt Mabel is drinking one, then they’ll move on,” says McCauley.