Explainer: a brief history of coffee in cocktails (and going beyond the Espresso Martini)

Coffee and cocktails go back well beyond the Espresso Martini.

Explainer: a brief history of coffee in cocktails (and going beyond the Espresso Martini)

It’s a good time to start a career as a bartender. You’ve just got to scan the shelves at any of the country’s better bars to see just how wide an array of spirits and flavours is on offer today, and when it comes to the use of coffee in mixed drinks, well, it’s never been better.

It’s the result of the convergence of two overarching trends: one, the craft cocktail boom that kicked off in earnest in the mid ‘aughts, and two, the boom in interest in craft coffee and the third wave coffee movement from around the same time.

Throw into the mix Australia’s penchant for the Espresso Martini — and the subsequent demand for products that service that interest — and you arrive at where we are today.

But how did we get here? How long has coffee appeared in bars and mixed drinks? And how can we go beyond the Espresso Martini?

Let’s switch on the grinder and take a deep dive.

Little Drippa has found favour with bartenders looking to enliven their cocktails. Photo: Boothby
Little Drippa has found favour with bartenders looking to enliven their cocktails. Photo: Boothby

Coffee and cocktails — a brief history

Jerry Thomas’ Coffee Cocktail
The taste for coffee in cocktails goes back a lot further than the Espresso Martini — all the way back to at least the late 1800s, in fact.

“Professor” Jerry Thomas, who wrote the first bartending guide in 1862, How To Mix Drinks, included a recipe for a Coffee Cocktail in the 1887 update of the book.

Calling for sugar, one whole egg, port wine, and brandy, you might note that the drink is neither a cocktail (for the lack of bitters), and nor will it pick you up.

“The name of this drink is a misnomer, as coffee and bitters are not to be found among its ingredients, but it looks like coffee when it has been properly concocted, and hence probably its name.”

The Irish Coffee
Of course, the addition of spirit to coffee has a long history — it wouldn’t take a genius to work out that a little brewed coffee could enliven even the roughest of hooch.

One of the more time honoured preparations, of course, is the Irish Coffee. The story goes that the Irish Coffee was invented back in 1938, at a flying boat terminal in Foynes,  in Ireland. A chef on duty, Joe Sheridan, saw the passengers were cold to the bone thanks to. the atrocious weather, so he added some Irish whiskey to hot coffee, with a little cream on top.

The Café Brûlot
This isn’t to say Sheridan was the first to invent a mix of hot coffee and spirit. In the 1880s in New Orleans, the theatrical preparation of the Café Brûlot has been happening since the 1880s. Made tableside with cognac, curaçao, hot coffee and a bunch of spices and flair, the drink has piratical roots: the story goes that a rather famous privateer named Jean Lafitte made the drink to distract people while his cronies picked their pockets. Whether or not that’s true — Lafitte was quite a busy privateer, smuggling prohibited goods and slaves, and raiding ships, which might suggest otherwise — coffee and spirits have been keeping the good times rolling in New Orleans a long time.

The Pharmaceutical Stimulant era
If you’re reading this, you’re familiar with the Espresso Martini. The drink has gone by other names, but it began its life in the 1980s thanks to legendary UK bartender Dick Bradsell (who also created the modern classic cocktail, the Bramble, among many others). The Espresso Martini isn’t the subject of this piece — we want to go beyond that here — and Melbourne writer and bartender Fred Siggins has written comprehensively before about the drink’s origins and Australia’s obsession with it.

As Siggins writes, the drink is so popular today that it has been resurrected from ignominy and “the fast food mentality of drink making” prevalent in the 1990s. Top bartenders today have their own craft tweak on the drink, and it has likely never been better.

It’s popularity has also spurred an industry of small scale and independent producers to create their own coffee-based bottlings — there is more choice on the market today than ever before.

Little Drippa. Photo: Boothby

Little Drippa
One of the leading producers in this new found world of coffee is Little Drippa, a cold drip coffee designed from the ground up to be used in cocktails.

The brand was founded in Australia’s coffee capital, Melbourne, back in 2013, by Lewis Kneale. Dylan Alexander from We Are Tailored (which includes East Pole distillery, Melbourne Martini, and Somme in its portfolio) acquired the brand from Kneale in 2017.

Alexander, who began his career as a barista, knows a thing or two about getting the best out of coffee beans. He says that Little Drippa’s medium-high acid, low bitterness and medium body is what makes it well-suited for mixing.

“Little Drippa is comprised of a four bean blend, featuring coffee sourced from Brazil, Honduras, Colombia and Papua New Guinea,” he says. “This 100% Arabica blend features notes of chocolate, almond and a hint of citrus.”

And cold drip coffee like that used in Little Drippa can often be better suited to mixing, because the process — unlike that involved in making espresso, for instance — can retain more of the delicate characteristics of the 100 percent Arabica bean blend.

“It all starts with the water,” says Alexander. “Our purpose built coffee dripping system has a state of the art water filtration system. We carefully drip the coffee for 18 hours and then run the brewed coffee through a multistage proprietary process which allows us to enhance the shelf life. We then bottle it in our state of the art bottling facility to ensure nothing can affect the coffee once in bottle.”

Going beyond the Espresso Martini — three riffs

The rich characters that coffee can produce can find a complementary partner in any number of products on the back bar. As the Irish Coffee suggests, it can pair well with whiskey, but it also plays nicely with richer fortified wines like port, and particularly sweet vermouth.

Get a look at some of the caffeinated riffs on classic preparations below.

This enlivening low ABV drink brings coffee and tonic (and sweet vermouth) together
If you’re after some complexity with your low ABV drink (and a jolt of caffeine), this is what you want.
An after dinner Manhattan to keep the night going
Sometimes you need a Manhattan that will wake you up.
Coffee and pineapple pop in this Jungle Bird riff
The Jungle Bird is a curious cocktail beast, and so too is this riff.

Contact your Amber Beverage representative for more information about Little Drippa, or visit amberbev.com.au.