Espresso martini orders started mysteriously pouring in at Restaurant Olivia last winter. So the bar team at the Wash Park Italian restaurant decided to officially add one to its menu—elevating the cocktail by using sea salt vodka and housemade bitters crafted with cocoa nibs. Now, this riff on a ’90s-era cocktail is one of the restaurant’s top-selling cocktails.
The espresso martini has made a comeback stronger than a double shot, according to Denver’s cocktail artisans. But this time around, the frothy, slightly sweet coffee cocktail is being reimagined with everything from the vodka infused with Tahitian beans at Olivia to the dalgona coffee and orange zest garnish at Welton Room.
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Like most cocktails, there’s a lot of lore surrounding how the espresso martini first came to be. But the prevailing theory is that it was invented by Dick Bradsell who was working at Fred’s Club in London in the 1980s when a young (now famous) model asked for a drink that would wake her up, then [insert expletive] mess her up. Within a decade, the cocktail—built with espresso, coffee liqueur, and vodka—was served in chilled, coffee-bean-garnished martini glasses stateside.
The espresso martini was strong, sweet, and mostly forgotten during the most recent cocktail renaissance—until now.
Local bartenders have a few theories on how the espresso martini has, once again, become en vogue after a near two-decade hiatus. For starters, it’s a pick-me-up (and we all need one after 2020). “Truthfully it isn’t unlike the fill-in-the-blank-energy drink and vodka that used to be such a big deal,” says Austin Carson, co-founder and beverage director at Restaurant Olivia, who is seeing the espresso martini gain traction with younger generations. “It works well as an after-dinner drink, especially after a big meal, which is how the majority of our guests are enjoying it.”
The relatively new arrival of craft coffee liqueurs is also helping fuel the resurgence, says Bryan Hirst, bartender at Nocturne. The jazz and supper club uses Caffè Borghetti coffee liqueur, which contains real Italian espresso, in its martini.
Yet another theory? We enjoyed DIY happy hours for the better part of a year and now that we’re venturing back into bars, we want to leave the more complicated, multi-step recipes to skilled bartenders, says Brandy Cross, bar manager at Brass Tacks. This time, that fancy recipe happens to be one from the ’90s vault. “I think it’s the same as fashion trends,” Cross says. “Cocktails make their comebacks, too.”
If you want a fix of your own, here are six spots in Denver where you can enjoy an espresso martini (wide-leg jeans and bucket hats optional)—plus an easy, three-ingredient recipe you can make at home.
With generous dollops of whipped coffee and a macaron gingerly placed on top, the Welton Room’s espresso martini doubles as a decadent dessert. This complex coffee cocktail has notes of vanilla and almond, too. 2590 Welton St., Ste. 103
Run for the Roses
In late July, an Instagram photo of a stately espresso martini popped up on Run for the Roses’ Instagram with a caption asking: “Has anyone else noticed this crazy espresso martini trend coming back? We sure have, and we fully support it.” As proof, the subterranean cocktail lair on the Dairy Block has been experimenting with variations of the espresso martini, trading out vodka for gin in one cocktail and crossing another with a White Russian, says the bar’s owner Steven Waters. The espresso martini’s return seems to be part of a broader resurgence of ’90s cocktails, Waters says, with the cosmo and Japanese slipper staging comebacks, too. 1801 Blake St., Ste. 10
Nocturne Jazz & Supper Club
An espresso martini feels like a just-right cocktail at a modern jazz and supper club like Nocturne, where bartender Hirst’s iteration has French press coffee, the Borghetti coffee liqueur, and a bit of simple syrup. When it’s shaken and strained into a cold martini glass, “a frothy head forms on top, like an actual shot of espresso,” Hirst says. 1330 27th St.
At Poka Lola, bartenders fat-wash their espresso martinis with brown butter. “That, along with the inclusion of salt and a hit of banana has made it our best-selling cocktail since we put it on the menu,” says Ryan Williams, lead bartender. 1850 Wazee St.
Bartenders at Brass Tacks add a bit of demerara sugar to their espresso martini to sweeten up the caffeinated classic. A double shake without ice gets it nice and frothy, and a little lemon zest is added to make it bright, Cross says. 1526 Blake St.
Olivia uses a full shot of espresso in its martini, but Greek sea salt helps take the edge off the bitterness. “We use dry roasted espresso beans and cocoa nibs in our coffee bitters to give it a unique flavor as well,” Carson says. 290 S. Downing St.
You can make your very own twist on the espresso martini at home with a local spirit, Barista Americano Whiskey from Deviation Distilling. “Martinis are made to be boozy, and our coffee-inspired whiskies create that strong flavor right off the bat,” says Bob Wiley, co-owner of Deviation Distilling.
3 oz. Barista Spirits Americano Whiskey
1/2 oz. simple syrup (To make your own, bring sugar and water to a boil at a ratio of one to one).
1/2 oz. cream (optional)
Espresso beans for garnish
Add ingredients to a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake for 30 seconds. Pour into a martini glass and garnish with espresso beans.