The Espresso Martini—the Grown-Up Red Bull and Vodka—Is Back

Why the retro coffee cocktail is the perfect drink for a post-pandemic resurgence.

The Terence Espresso Martini at Nina May. Photograph courtesy Nina May.

Terence Callahan drinks an espresso martini at least every other week at his favorite restaurant, Nina May. It wasn’t on the menu when he first started going to the New American spot in Logan Circle, but owner Danilo Simic took on Callahan’s drink request and created a version with Swing’s coffee, vodka, chocolate bitters, orange essence, and a chocolate crumble garnish. Callahan, a VP for a regional bank, has been ordering espresso martinis since college, and his family gets tipsy on them over the holidays.

“If you’re looking for a little pep in your step, the espresso martini is the way to go,” he says. “I think it’s the adult vodka Red Bull.” So for his 30th birthday last year, Simic surprised Callahan with a new menu addition: the “Terence Espresso Martini.” He was close to tears.

For a long time, Callahan’s evangelism drove a lot of the espresso martini sales at Nina May. But more recently, something unexpected has happened. Simic has seen the drink take off in an even bigger way. It’s not unusual for him to sell 50 to 60 per night. “It’s becoming a little bit trendy in DC,” Simic says. 

Turns out, espresso martinis are now all over the place—and cross culinary boundaries. South American restaurant Mercy Me, Italian-American Caruso’s Grocery, European-influenced Residents Cafe & Bar, seafood-heavy Truluck’s, and Southern-leaning Pearl Dive are just some of the places currently offering them. Middle Eastern bar Green Zone was recently promoting its off-menu version (“apparently it’s having a revival”).  You can even get a boozeless version with non-alcoholic spirit Seedlip at the new Dupont hotel restaurant Lyle’s.

The espresso martini at Italian-American restaurant Caruso’s Grocery at the Roost is already a top-seller. Photograph by Nick Farrell.

“It comes from an era of cocktail making where there weren’t a lot of good cocktails being made. But it’s fun, balanced drink that deserves a renaissance,” says Nick Farrell, Spirit Director for the Roost food hall in Hill East. He introduced a version with house-made espresso-rum liqueur, vanilla bean-infused vodka, and fresh espresso at just-opened Caruso’s Grocery. Already, it’s the second best seller on the menu. (The gin antipasti martini takes the top spot.)

Legend has it the drink was invented in 1983 by London bartender Dick Bradsell after a model—some claim Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell—allegedly asked him to make “something to wake me up, then fuck me up.” (The actual backstory may not be quite as sexy. Plus, those supermodels were 9 and 13 at the time.) Nonetheless, the drink quickly spread as many partygoers’ drink of choice, and it enjoyed widespread popularity into the next decade alongside the Cosmo (which is also having a renaissance—long live the ’90s).

While it might seem like the type of frou-frou drink that serious mixologists pooh-pooh, many admit they secretly love it. “There are so many cool things about it, like its natural bitterness, the really nice texture you get from the oils of a well-pulled espresso with that really cool foam on top,” Farrell says. Ideal before or after dinner, the espresso martini is not so different from other classic aperitifs or digestifs—just a little boozier.

Naturally, DC bartenders are putting their own sophisticated twists on the drink. For Maydan’s spring menu, Director of Business Development and veteran bartender Jess Weinstein is combining vodka and Kahlua with a “mud mix” made of cacao, tahini, turmeric powder, coconut cream, and ground Lion’s Mane mushroom. “What the mushroom presents as is a slightly earthy undertone. It doesn’t really give you more than that,” says Weinstein, who’s a big fan of adaptogens. (Fun fact: Weinstein is working on a gelato inspired by the drink with Dolcezza.)

Maydan’s espresso martini infuses ground mushrooms. Photograph by Jess Weinstein.

Meanwhile, JP Sabatier, co-owner of forthcoming 14th Street bar Jane Jane, has a recipe for an espresso martini with dulce de leche syrup. He offered the cocktail as part of a delivery-only pop-up (sparking more social media feedback than any other drink) and plans to put it on the menu when the spot opens in July.

In a lot of ways, the espresso martini is the perfect cocktail for the post-pandemic resurgence. For many who’ve been home over the past year, the line between work hours and happy hour has become a little fuzzy. So of course their drink of choice combines daytime fuel with a wind-down buzz. Plus, after a year of restaurant and bar restrictions, everyone’s eager to go out—but also suddenly remembering how exhausting it is to go out. Solution: booze and caffeine! “Often I think people play this game with themselves with espresso martinis, where they’re really convinced that it’s very caffeinated and it will counteract however many drinks they had,” Weinstein says. (Reality check: not so much.)

Also, YOLO. We’re surviving a freaking pandemic.

“If I’m being 100 percent honest, have I ordered a Long Island Iced Tea at a bar in the past year? I have,” Sabatier says. “I feel like the espresso martini is kind of living in that same realm. People are giving into their deepest, darkest desires and they’re not even embarrassed about it. Are people going to look at me weird for ordering an espresso martini? The pandemic has certainly just pushed people to live their truth.”

Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.