The finest new coffee liqueurs

The modern-day artisanal coffee trend is spawning some first‑class coffee liqueurs and knockout espresso martinis

Image: Chris Burke

If I had to pick the little black dress of the drinks world, the espresso martini would certainly be in the running – it’s a cocktail that never goes out of fashion, despite being over 30 years old. The recipe was notoriously invented at the Soho Brasserie in 1983 by bartending legend Dick Bradsell, after a supermodel strode into the bar demanding something “to wake me up and then f*** me up”. Bradsell went to the grave without ever revealing the model’s identity, but the drink became a classic the world over. 

Bradsell bartended at just about every hotspot of the 1980s and ’90s, from the Colony Room Club and the Groucho to Pharmacy and the Atlantic – which even named its bar after him. Yet Bradsell himself was no snob. He once told me – not without a flicker of mischief – that his favourite way of spending a Saturday night was doing the crossword with the old lady next door. And his taste in ingredients was similarly unflashy: the original espresso martini was made with Wyborowa vodka, Illy espresso, Kahlúa and Tia Maria – two coffee liqueurs most bartenders wouldn’t be caught dead using these days. 

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While researching the espresso martini for the upcoming Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails, I learnt that Bradsell’s choice of coffee was also inspired by the fact that the Soho Brasserie had recently installed a new Illy coffee machine, which was still something of a novelty in those days. Of course, now you can’t move for artisanal coffee shops, a change that has also spawned some first-class coffee liqueurs. 

New out this autumn is Hundred Fifty Lbs (£25 from The Whisky Exchange), a hand-tremblingly good cold-brew coffee liqueur produced by drinks experts Strange Hill in collaboration with hipster coffee chain the Department of Coffee and Social Affairs. Made with single-estate beans from El Salvador and Cameroon, and produced in a batch of just 950 bottles, it’s mellow and chocolatey with a warming hint of pepper on the finish. 

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Also excellent is the liqueur (£27.65 from The Whisky Exchange) from Dorset’s craft distillery Conker Spirit, which has all the deep, roasty nuttiness of proper espresso. If you want a real eye-opener, then try Mr Black (£29.95 from 31dover.com), a very smart-looking coffee liqueur from Australia. A blend of Kenyan, Colombian and citrusy coffee from Papua New Guinea gives it a big, complex flavour. I went round dispensing this at a party recently, which is possibly why so many people ended up missing the last train home. Rather daintier is the Espresso Martini (£32.95) from the Cotswolds Distillery, a crystal-clear distillate of coffee beans, orange peel, coriander and spices. Would Dick Bradsell have swapped it for his Tia Maria? Possibly not. But it still makes a damn fine cocktail.

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