Drinks

Morning Jolt

Coffee cocktails are cooler than ever
Photo: Rachel Vanni/Tasting Table

Coffee cocktails aren’t new. Splashes of whiskey have been turning after-dinner coffees Irish for years—but a perfect storm’s been brewing and just brought this stone-cold drink trend to new heights.

Bars, restaurants and even some coffee shops (the ones that can get liquor licenses, that is) are developing elevated takes on the age-old combination of booze and caffeine. Complex and unexpected, today’s coffee cocktails run the gamut from sweet to smoky, and they’re about to wake you right up.

So what’s shakin’? As coffee and cocktail culture both continue to boom, drinkers and makers are on the constant hunt for something new.

“You just can’t be a normal coffee shop any more,” Charles Babinski of L.A.’s G&B Coffee says.

The winner of the 2015 U.S. Barista Championship and runner-up in the world championship that same year, Babinski embraces the signature, more playful drinks he finds in so many coffee shops these days. (G&B made headlines a couple years ago with its iced almond and macadamia milk latte.)

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If it couldn’t feel like more of an ideal time for the coffeehouse and barroom to join forces, the rise of cold, bottled and canned coffee seals the deal. Jerad Morrison, co-owner of San Francisco’s Sightglass Coffee, puts it simply: “Coffee served cold is really taking off. With specialty coffee and specialty cocktails happening in tandem, there’s a natural opportunity to bring the two together.”

Between La Colombe Draft Latte and Blue Bottle Cold Brew, the options for portable, mass-market, cold coffee for bars that don’t have a coffee or espresso machine are grown-up, efficient and easily storable. Even better, many of them are cold brew.

Cold brew and espresso work better than drip coffee in cocktails, because they’re more concentrated. For instance, bartender Brandon Paul Weaver from Seattle's Liberty Bar, which opened as a dual coffee shop and bar 10 years ago, developed a cocktail (see the recipe) with La Niña del Mezcal from Oaxaca and cold brew from the same region. Coming from the same terroir, both products started out in one form and transformed into another, to be reunited in this cocktail, Weaver explains.

“It’s sort of poetic,” he says.

The cocktail, which can be made with any mescal or cold brew, also comes with rhubarb amaro, peach liqueur and Angostura bitters.

“There’s a lot of fruitiness and earthiness, which is why rhubarb went really well. The bitter aspect of the amaro complements the earthiness of the coffee and mescal,” Weaver explains.

The rotating menu at Liberty includes other caffeine-infused cocktails, like the Seattle Sour, made with house-made coffee liqueur, rye, fresh lemon juice and an egg white. It’s also been known to serve a Double Americano, a play on the Italian Americano cocktail of Campari, vermouth and soda. Liberty adds a shot of espresso to make it a double.

Liberty’s having fun with these cocktails, just like the folks at Sightglass, who regularly team up with restaurants and bars—like NYC’s Amor y Amargo and San Francisco’s Trick Dog. Sightglass just took things one step further by developing a cascara shrub meant specifically for cocktails and sodas.

“The sky's the limit as to what can be created; it’s just really a matter of taste,” Morrison says.

Babinski points out that within the industry, the term coffee cocktail doesn’t even need to include alcohol, but merely indicates a complex mix of ingredients. G&B serves a Dark and Stormy with espresso, homemade ginger and caramelized sugar syrup, for example, and Babinski won his award last year with a concoction of Honduran espresso, juniper syrup, grapefruit reduction and honey.

Whether you go booze free or spiked, go ahead and espresso yourself.

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