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Java jolts: Celebrating the return of the espresso martini

HOT SHOT The Turkish Astronomer cocktail at Toronto’s Byblos is just one of many new drinks to incorporate espresso.

Call it the revenge of the espresso martini. After a decade of being shunned by craft cocktail makers, coffee is finally back in the bar mix. Everywhere you look, mixed drinks that incorporate espresso, cold-brew coffee or plain old French press joe are suddenly perking up imbibers.

A modern marvel invented in the United Kingdom by London barman Dick Bradsell in 1983, the espresso martini – classically, a mix of vodka, Kahlua, sugar syrup and coffee – was temporarily shelved by contemporary craft cocktail bartenders, who generally steer clear of anything called a "martini," unless it's actually the original gin-vermouth gold standard. But now swank Vancouver drinking establishments such as the YEW Bar at the Four Seasons and Uva specialize in cold-brew concoctions. At the recently opened Nightingale, there's even a caffeinated gin and tonic on tap. Not just a west coast trend, bartenders across North America are rehabilitating the espresso martini and making it their own.

"Every time I get an order for one, I feel a little pang of disappointment," says Robin Kaufman, head bartender at Toronto's Byblos, referring to the fact that the vodka cocktail doesn't fit the craft ethos. "But then I make it and taste it and I think, 'Oh man, it's so good, though.'"

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Tainted by its association with those sweet, flavoured vodka martinis that dominated the 1990s and early aughts, as well as the boozy coffees that are still a standard dessert course offering on table-top tent cards at every family eatery chain, coffee as a cocktail ingredient was definitively out. But the espresso martini stubbornly refused to go away, partly because, as Kaufman indicates, it's a tasty guilty pleasure.

It doesn't hurt that it's a good way to clear up some of the alcohol fog and inject a little jolt of energy midway through a night's session, which is one of the reasons bartenders themselves enjoy it. In fact, that's the reason it was invented in the first place. Bradsell was said to have claimed that he created it for a patron who wanted to drink something that would do both. Says Kaufman: "It's better than a Red Bull and a whole lot safer than a lot of other options."

The other reasons coffee cocktails are back with a vengeance have to do with the rise of barista culture. Most good bars – particularly the ones that are open during the day, such as Toronto's Bar Raval – take pride in having an outstanding coffee program, in addition to great cocktails. Add to this the immense popularity of cold-brew coffee, which has inspired bartenders to approach the ingredient with a fresh perspective.

"A good buddy of ours, David De Ciantis of Moto Coffee and Snack Shop, was bringing us all these cold-brew concentrates before the whole cold-brew thing blew up," says Kaufman. "And he was bringing us all these rare coffees with crazy apricot and blueberry fruity flavour profiles instead of just chocolatey coffee."

At Byblos, that inspired Kaufman to tinker with Turkish coffee and try to bring out the java's fruitier notes by pairing it with aged rum and apricot liqueur. The result? The Turkish Astronomer, a chocolatey, bittersweet orange elixir that's garnished with grapefruit zest.

Kaufman says that the once-neglected ingredient is a boon to cocktails, since it's incredibly versatile and plays really well with other ingredients. "There are so many things that can be done, it's crazy," he says, mentioning that it works well in tonics, with bitter liqueurs and, especially, tequila and mezcal. "You just add a little bit of coffee and it transforms a drink."

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