High Cotton's long-running espresso martini has changed little in 22 years | Photos by Ruta Smith

Bold and Boozy

 G one are the days when espresso martinis were simply a boozy pick-me-up — at least at Babas on Cannon, Vintage Lounge, High Cotton and forthcoming Bodega. 

At Babas, owner Edward Crouse and his team are whipping up an espresso martini that takes 12 hours to make, while Vintage Lounge owner Nathan Wheeler says high quality espresso and Sicilian amaro are the key to his joint’s off-menu martini. In fact, the two owners did an espresso martini competition last year to see whose reigned supreme. 

And then there’s Bodega and High Cotton — the former is testing its recipe at Uptown Social before Bodega opens on Ann Street later this year, while the latter hasn’t changed its espresso martini in at least 22 years, when it earned praise in publications like Food & Wine Magazine

Babas’ espresso martini is made using five ingredients — Cathead vodka, Kahlua, Montenegro, chocolate milk and citric acid — but that’s where the simplicity ends. 

“At a very base level, we put just as much energy into the coffee program as we do the bar program, and what is a perfect combination of the two? It’s the espresso martini,” Crouse said.

The drink’s three spirits are combined and strained into the chocolate milk before Crouse adds citric acid. This breaks the milk into curds, and after whisking and letting the concoction sit overnight, the curds are strained through a coffee filter, a process called milk-washing. 

“Keep reusing the coffee filters that already have curds in them, as this will help straining, but don’t use them once they get too full or it’ll take forever — it’s a dance,” Crouse quipped in a written description of the drink to the City Paper. “We’re playing jazz here. We’re getting jazzy with it. We’re like Jazze Pha, and the guest is Ciara, and everybody’s about to one, two step.” 

Thanks to the milk-washing technique, the 12-hour process results in a dairy-free espresso martini that’s bright, balanced, bold and boozy. 

“I think the recipe is just stunning because it really does deliver the mouth feel you want from adding dairy, but there is no dairy in it,” said Crouse, who serves the martini in a frozen cortado glass. “It is the hardest cocktail to make for us by far, and it’s the hardest to get spot-on. It’s such a complicated drink, but it’s so delicious.” 

Espresso martinis have long been popular in big cities, including New York City, the hometown of Uptown Social’s ownership group. According to co-owner Keith Benjamin, the espresso martini fit best with the company’s breakfast pop-up Bodega, which will open in its own brick-and-mortar space later this year., but it remains a hit among Uptown Social patrons.

Bodega is planning an espresso martini happy hour when it opens

Titled, “The Soon to Be Famous Espresso Martini,” Bodega’s — which is available at Uptown Social in the meantime — is made using Dead Eye Vodka, Counter Culture coffee, butterscotch and a dash of sea salt.

“At Uptown Social, it didn’t seem to fit the vibe as much as we wanted to, but when we launched Bodega it seemed like a perfect item for it,” Benjamin said, adding that Bodega will have an espresso martini happy hour once it opens. “[Talk Coffee to Me owner Briana Berry] created our secret recipe that we’re really proud of.” 

According to High Cotton general manager Ryan Groeschel, bar manager Kristen Wenzinger is the gatekeeper for the restaurant’s 22-year-old espresso martini recipe. 

“It’s definitely in everyone’s training,” Groeschel said. “She’s been the one here protecting the recipe and making sure it stays consistent.” 

Prior to High Cotton’s November 1999 opening, Marianne Martin developed the espresso martini recipe, Groeschel said. 

“At the time, the chocolate martini was all the rage, so she wanted to be a little different,” he said. “King Bean [Coffee] was just getting started, and High Cotton opened using their product and still uses their product to this day.” 

High Cotton whips up a classic rendition with vodka, KahlÚa and fresh-brewed King Bean espresso. The drink gets a heavy shake and chocolate powder rim before it’s delivered to more than 1,000 customers each month. 

Vintage Lounge keeps its espresso martini off-menu, but that’s not stopping the King Street wine bar from selling an average of 1,200 per month, co-owner Nathan Wheeler said. 

Vintage Lounge’s espresso martini is an off-menu favorite

“Austin Berry, a VL team member who has been with us since day one, pointed out that the espresso martini is her generation’s vodka Red Bull,” Wheeler said. “Once we noticed the trend, we started to take it seriously. The bartending team began to workshop a recipe, playing around with different amaros and vermouths.” 

Wheeler credits former employee Nickie Douglas with coming up with the final combination, a mix of espresso, amaro and vodka.

“The trick is to keep it simple,” he said. “High-quality espresso beans from our local roastery Second State, which we grind in-house and pull fresh. The amaro we use is Averna, [which is a] delicious Sicilian amaro with an amazing herbal quality. Tito’s vodka and garnished with espresso beans.”