The World Can’t Stop Drinking Espresso Martinis

The history behind the famous cocktail and where to find the best ones in the Twin Cities

It happened on a late night in London. Or, at least, that’s how the story goes. The year was 1984 and Fred’s Club, one of the most notorious Soho drinkeries of the 80s, was enjoying its usual rush of customers. In a fated moment, a famous British model (her identity is highly debated, but many agree it was Kate Moss) wandered into Fred’s, where she approached the now-legendary bartender Dick Bradsell to make a peculiar request. “Give me something that will wake me up, and [mess] me up,” she supposedly said. Bradsell’s answer? A part-espresso, part-vodka, part-coffee liqueur shaken cocktail that certainly fulfilled the model’s two objectives. Today one might call it the espresso martini.  

Whether apocryphal or accurate, the story is certainly worthy of the intrigue the espresso martini holds, a cocktail which quite literally has our culture in a chokehold (and doesn’t seem to be letting go any time soon). Bradsell’s spur-of-the-moment creation has today become a must-have on bar, restaurant, and distillery menus worldwide. According to the New York Times, within the first six months of 2021, the mentions of “espresso martini” in U.S. bar and restaurant reviews skyrocketed, experiencing a 300% increase from 2019. London hosts annual celebrations of the drink, and the caffeinated cocktail is said to be the most ordered drink in all Australia. Many beverage companies have even begun offering canned spinoffs of the drink, notably including Kahlúa, Loverboy, and Buzzball

Whether he knew it or not, Bradsell’s spontaneous experiment would spark a cultural movement.

A Not-So-Instant Classic  

While its popularity has certainly been cemented today, it didn’t emerge instantly. After Bradsell served up the first espresso martini of its kind on that storied London night, the concoction was said to have very slowly made its way through the U.K. and parts of Australia, back then dubbed the “vodka espresso.” Largely enjoyed by artists, actors, and small concentrations of elite, the cocktail was predominantly shaken up at exclusive bars and private clubs, its unique allure immediately associated with class and refined taste. However, the vodka Red Bull firmly retained its position as the go-to caffeinated cocktail of the time, with the espresso martini still somewhat of a novelty to the rest of the world.  

But it wouldn’t take long for the up-all-night elixir to be picked up by the city that never sleeps. In ‘90s New York City, a thriving neo-martini culture was already running rampant (likely thanks to ‘90s and 2000s it-girl Carrie Bradshaw). Everything from watermelon to green apple “martinis” were being served up in the signature V-shaped glass, with which the city has a practically synonymous relationship. Basically, if it was in a martini glass, New Yorkers were calling it a martini. And so, under New York City’s (and, arguably,  Bradshaw’s) influence, the vodka espresso became the espresso martini.  

Sarah Jessica Parker’s iconic character Carrie Bradshaw was rarely seen without a martini (of any kind) in hand

Image sourced from StyleCracker on Pinterest

The newly-named cocktail experienced a brief heyday in the ‘90s, but its true breakthrough came at the start of the 2020s, coinciding with an unanticipated rise in coffee culture and the coming-of-age of Gen Z. Over the past few years, the drink has grown so massively popular that new spinoffs have emerged, bartenders inventively replacing espresso with cold brew, or vodka with tequila. The drink is likely to keep evolving and morphing into new and exciting forms, but one thing is for sure: it isn’t going away. It seems the convergence of coffee break and happy hour is exactly what the world had been waiting for.  

The Coffee Bean Trio  

Even if you are new to the espresso martini craze, you may have noticed the drink’s signature garnish—3 coffee beans arranged across the foamy surface in a triangle of sorts. While these beans could simply be a finishing touch that managed to catch on worldwide, many believe they have a greater significance. And it makes sense—why never one, two, or four beans, but always three? The trademark design is said to have been derived from Sambuca, Italy and symbolizes a trio of good wishes for health, wealth, and happiness—an alleviating idea to pair with a notoriously expensive cocktail that contains a contradictory trio of its own—caffeine, sugar, and alcohol. (Although the happiness part is right on the money.)

It is rare to find an espresso martini without the signature three bean garnish

A Minnesotan Touch 

Minnesota is no stranger to the espresso martini. Caught up in the craze much like the rest of the world, you will be able to find the famed cocktail at your favorite bars and restaurants all across the Twin Cities this summer. Here are some of the best ones.  

Most Photogenic  

Mr. Paul’s Supper Club— $15  

The Nitrogen Espresso Martini at Mr. Paul’s Supper Club is almost too pretty to drink (but just almost)

Image sourced from @mrpaulssupperclub on Instagram

Officially titled the “Nitrogen Espresso Martini,” you will be hard-pressed to find a version of the drink quite as elegantly presented and delectably foamy as this one. Completed by the three trademark coffee beans which nearly sink into the pile of frothy goodness atop the cocktail, Mr. Paul’s takes the drink to a new height of luxury.  

Best Value

Sidebar at Surdyk’s— $12  

Running at least $2-$3 cheaper than the average espresso martini, the “Martini Espress” whipped up by Sidebar at Surdyk’s is certainly not any less expertly crafted or delicious. With hints of vanilla and cocoa, the balanced concoction of Sobieski Vodka, Du Nord Café Frieda Coffee Liqueur, and B&W Espresso is one of the best around.  

Most Unique

Fhima’s Minneapolis— $16

Fhima’s inventive and delicious take on the espresso martini

Image provided

A little spicy and a little sweet, Fhima’s weaves both Italian and Spanish influences into its espresso martini creation, with Amaro Averna, a traditional Sicilian after-dinner digestif and Licor 43, a vanilla-flavored Spanish liqueur. It is a taste all of its own, and most certainly worth a trip to Fhima’s historic bar.  

Best Night Cap 

Josefina’s $15

The Tiramisu Espresso Martini at Josefina’s is the perfect after-dinner drink

Photo by Madde Gibba

Can’t decide whether you want to end your night with a coffee, dessert, or drink? Josefina’s offers all three in one, with its Tiramisu Espresso Martini, a harmonious convergence of all the best after-dinner delights.  

Plain Delicious 

Cobble Social House— $17

The espresso martini at Cobble Social House, made with Misfit Coffee cold press

Image sourced from @cobblempls on Instagram

How can it not be delicious when its menu description includes brownie batter bitters? Cobble Social House, the artful drinkery and gallery adjacent to Monte Carlo, shakes up a cold press version of the martini, enhanced by the subtle sweetness of demerara, and a delicious hint of chocolate from the brownie bitters. It is a must-try. 

Tequila

Umbra— $15 

Umbra’s Tequila Express beautifully merges espresso and tequila with hints of orange and chocolate

Image sourced from @umbraminneapolis on Instagram

While the espresso martini is traditionally made with vodka, the mass popularity of the drink has resulted in exciting swap-outs, from tequila, to whiskey, to gin. Umbra fulfills our heart’s desire with a tequila take on the cocktail, titled the “Tequila Express,” made with Espolòn tequila, Italian liqueur, and espresso. Its finishing touch of orange zest and chocolate shavings effortlessly melds all the flavors together in this inventive variation.  

Make at Home

Always-elegant, the espresso martini is a great to drink to have in your hosting repertoire

Image taken by author

For those who love hosting, shaking up an always-elegant espresso martini is a great way to wow guests. Not to mention, the cocktail is overwhelmingly simple to make—even for those who don’t have an espresso machine, as the drink tastes just as delicious with instant espresso or cold brew. Below, find a simple, bare bones recipe that can be easily dressed up or modified however you please.  

Ingredients:  

3 ounces vodka  

2 ounces espresso  

1 ounce Kahlúa (or your preferred coffee liqueur) 

1 ounce simple syrup  

Ice cubes 

Coffee beans (for garnish)  

Method: 

Combine espresso, vodka, Kahlúa, simple syrup and ice cubes in a cocktail shaker. Shake well for 1-2 minutes. Strain chilled liquid into a martini glass and garnish with three coffee beans. Enjoy at coffee-time or happy hour (or both, for best results.)

As Minnesota Monthly's Style Editor, Emma keeps a close pulse on all things retail, style, and fashion in the Twin Cities and beyond. Since graduating from Miami university in 2022 with degrees in English-Literature and Media and Culture, Emma has accumulated a wealth of experience in both the editorial and fashion industries, including producing a sold-out runway show for Fashion Week Minnesota. She harnesses this experience, as well as her passion for storytelling, to communicate the diverse perspectives of individuals who have helped shape the Minnesota fashion scene and its one-of-a-kind events, brands, and businesses. When she is not writing, you might find Emma at a yoga class, thrifting, walking her Bernese Mountain Dog, traveling, or drinking overpriced coffee. You will never see her in the same outfit twice.