Interest in caffeinated concoctions continues to rise due to timeless cocktails like the creamy, hot-cold Irish coffee and invigorating espresso martini. But not all these drinks benefit from the same type of coffee application, roast or tasting notes.
The array of specialty coffee beans on the market is staggering, each flaunting a distinctive set of characteristics. Selecting which variety to incorporate into a cocktail is just as overwhelming (and important) as deciding what goes into the morning French press.
Here, experts break down exactly what kind of coffee to use for all of your java cocktails.
What Is the Best Coffee to Use in Your Cocktail?
Cocktail recipes most often call for either freshly brewed coffee or espresso, says Gabe Sanchez, general manager at Midnight Rambler in Dallas and the type of coffee you choose is vital to the success of the finished product.
“While the flavor profiles aren’t going to come through like they would if you are drinking a fresh pour-over, they are still going to add to the cocktail or muddle the flavor you are working toward,” explains Sanchez.
No two brews are alike, so Sanchez advises seeking out a trusty local roaster with staff that has the expertise to differentiate between filter and espresso roasts or explain the qualities of a brew hailing from regions like Guatemala and Yemen. Sanchez personally turns to Dallas-based coffee roaster, Full City Rooster, for advice. The team has helped him discover a penchant for clove and nutty layers in darker roasts and floral ones in softer iterations.
Lindsey Hawes, the lead bartender at Bar Marilou in New Orleans, takes a similar route. She uses robust coffee blends that won’t succumb to strong spirits like bourbon or tequila and will round out the sweetness of syrups or cordials.
“I look for lighter and more floral coffees when I want to incorporate a more delicate spirit like Japanese whisky or gin,” she elaborates. “No matter what spirit you’re using, you want to be extra sure to avoid burnt or overly acidic flavors.”
Of course— always use a fresh brew. “You want to get coffee as close to it being harvested as possible to get the best flavor from the coffee bean,” recommends Aidan Bowie, beverage director at The Dead Rabbit in New York City.
When to Use Espresso for Cocktails
For a drink where “coffee flavor is the star,” Sanchez will reach for espresso. In Bar Marilou’s La Luz Espresso, which melds reposado tequila, coffee liqueur, mole bitters and a habañero-infused overproof dark rum with espresso from locally-based Congregation Coffee Roasters, the espresso is the focus of the drink. “But [the espresso] lets the spice and sweetness of the other components shine through,” says Hawes.
Another great use for espresso is in shaken cocktails. “The cloud-like fluffy texture in an espresso martini is so appealing because of that interaction with the fatty oils in the espresso,” says Bowie.
Hawes is also a fan of the boldness imparted by espresso in shaken recipes. “It holds up better to a hard shake and, when poured, gives a foamy head to the cocktail that looks amazing and can hold an aromatic dusting like cinnamon or fresh espresso dust,” she says.
The Dead Rabbit’s coffee beans are sourced from Calendar Coffee in Galway, Ireland. Although collaborating with this roastery further illuminates the bar’s Irish roots, Calendar’s dark Colombian roast is the ideal companion to The Dead Rabbit’s Irish coffee and Irish coffee martini. with the roast’s “flavors of orange zest, caramel and cacao that pair perfectly with The Dead Rabbit Irish whiskey,” says Bowie.
Recipe to Try: Irish Coffee Martini
Recipe courtesy of The Dead Rabbit
Add all ingredients into a cocktail shaker with ice and shake vigorously. Strain into a coupe. Garnish with nutmeg.
More Espresso Cocktail Recipes
When to Use Drip Coffee for Cocktails
It’s the more brazen nature of espresso, however, that has made Adam Morgan, bar manager at Husk Nashville, preferential to working with drip coffee. “It leaves more room to adjust or manipulate flavor profiles and textures,” he points out.
Drip coffee is lighter in flavor, compared to espresso, adds Sanchez. He opts for this option when he wants to whip up a cocktail with more nuanced libations.
Morgan gravitates to bright, citrusy roasts that tend to yield harmonious concoctions. “Nine times out of 10, with coffee in a drink, you are making something catered toward the front or back end of a meal. This profile helps cut through the tones you would expect from a [coffee cocktail],” he notes. Building off his relationship with local Crema Coffee Roasters, Morgan turns out drinks like the Strange Brew, with chilled coffee, cold brew amaro—a coffee cordial—vanilla and nutmeg. This results in “an ideal amount of richness without being overly aggressive,” he says.
This balance is essential to boozy coffee beverages, notes Bowie. “We are using coffee as a modifier or lengthener to the cocktail, so it needs to be able to work with the other ingredients. You should be able to taste the integrity of the product, without it overpowering,” he says.
Recipe to Try: Strange Brew
Recipe from Husk Nashville
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker, shake until well combined and strain into a glass. Grate fresh nutmeg over top.
To Make the Coffee Cordial:
Combine 1 cup sugar with 1 cup hot coffee. Add ½ oz vanilla liqueur to taste.
More Drip Coffee Cocktails Recipes
When to Use Cold Brew for Cocktails
Bowie has also experimented with cold brew in cocktails and finds that it works especially well in highballs and stirred tipples. “Temperature plays a big factor here. Using cold brew as the dilution element to a drink works well and can help to give these styles of drinks a different flavor profile and bitterness,” he says.
In the Crème de Funk cocktail served at Midnight Rambler, a cold brew bourbon is combined with PX Sherry, heavy cream, simple syrup and an egg white. The drink swaps water for whiskey in its cold brew preparation, and Sanchez embraces Ethiopian Yirgacheffe because it has “big chocolate notes along with berry and citrus notes that hold up against the heavier whiskey and PX Sherry flavors.”
Given the creativity that permeates modern-day mixology, Hawes believes that coffee is yet another dynamic addition to cocktails, whether it’s a dark and citrus-forward roast that meshes with poblano liqueur and Cointreau, or a fruity cold brew. “[Cold brew] mixes surprisingly well with blueberries and gin. With so many flavors of coffee, we have so many sugar, spice, fruit and even vegetable pairings to play with. I’m looking for the coffee to be one or two notes in the song of a good cocktail—noticeable but not the whole story.”
Recipe to Try: Crème de Funk
Recipe courtesy of Midnight Rambler
Add bourbon, Sherry, cream, simple syrup and egg white to a cocktail shaker tin filled 3/4 with ice and shake. Strain and dry shake. Double strain into a short highball glass filled 3/4 with ice. Garnish with whipped cream and chocolate shavings.
To Make the Cold Brew Bourbon
Add 2 ounces ground coffee to a cold brew Toddy or French press. Add 250 ml of bourbon to cover the grounds. Let sit 5 minutes. Add 2 ounces of coffee beans and 250 ml of bourbon and cover with plastic wrap. Place in the refrigerator for 12 to 18 hours. Pull the plug on the Toddy or plunge the French press and strain into a glass container. Add equal parts bourbon to coffee bourbon to dilute. Keep in an airtight container for 2 to 3 weeks.