There are certain pairings that just naturally go together. Wine and cheese. Champagne and strawberries. Beer and hot wings. As elementary as bread and butter, each is an iconic duo in its own right. Let’s talk about another classic food and drink pairing that’s native to bars, restaurants, and gourmet establishments across the world: the espresso martini and dessert.
Before taking a deep dive into the sumptuous, decadent world of the perfect espresso martini and the desserts that complement its complex flavors, let’s brush up on what exactly the espresso martini is and how it came to be such a seminal cocktail.
A Brief History of the Espresso Martini
Coffee and liquor. At first glance, they seem like an antipodal combination. One to give you a quick shot of energy, the other to bring things down a notch. And yet with the espresso martini, the two are a match made in heaven. It’s a rich and complex taste without parallel in the world of mixology.
You can trace the origins of the espresso martini back to London’s Soho bar scene in the early 1980s. At the time, Soho was London’s go-to nightclub area. Everyone from rock stars to writers to models frequented the neighborhood’s collection of famous bars. As the legend goes, professional bartender Dick Bradsell first invented the drink at the behest of one particular (and very famous) supermodel. While the model herself remains anonymous, what she said to Bradsell will forever remain part of our cultural conversation. “Give me something to wake me up and f@$k me up.” And thus, the inspiration for the now-famous espresso martini.
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Since its inception, the drink has become a staple at high-class establishments worldwide. While its popularity has waxed and waned with the years, the espresso martini is currently in the middle of a long and well-deserved renaissance. The reason for its increasing popularity? The drink’s versatility, of course.
Why Does the Espresso Martini Pair So Well With Sweets?
While the title “Espresso Martini” seems self-explanatory, how do bartenders and mixologists actually make the drink? A quick deconstruction of a bar-quality espresso martini’s DNA can shed some light on the drink that is at once simple and complex.
An espresso martini consists of the following ingredients, typically mixed in the following ratio:
- 1 oz.espresso or cold-brew coffee
- 2 oz. of high-quality vodka
- ¾ oz. of coffee liqueur
At its heart, the espresso martini is simple to make. The pure caffeine injection of the coffee provides the perfect counterbalance to high-proof vodka, but it’s the rich, decadent coffee liqueur that gives the drink its magic.
We keep using the word “rich” to describe the taste of an espresso cocktail, and that’s not an accident. It’s a point of scientific fact that 80% of our sense of taste is derived from our sense of smell. That’s where the hearty, aromatic flavor of the coffee comes into play. The dark and robust flavor of the cold brew is hard to deny, wrapping itself around the vodka and transforming it.
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It’s the liqueur, however, that gives the drink a hint of sophisticated sweetness often bringing in added notes of vanilla and chocolate. In turn, this mostly bitter, slightly sweetened cocktail provides the perfect backdrop on which to go full tilt with the decadent flavor of your favorite dessert. There is, however, both an art and science to combining the two.
A Quick Guide for Pairing Espresso Martinis and Dessert
When it comes to dessert consumption, there are usually two schools of thought:
- Desserts are an occasional treat best reserved for celebrations
- Desserts are just another course on your daily menu
We’re not here to pick sides, only to point out that the espresso martini is a drink that belongs in the conversation. For some, it is a dessert all on its own. Given its gigantic personality and strong taste, it tends to pair best with high-quality dessert foods. There’s nothing wrong with noshing on some ice cream or chocolate chip cookies as you sip your cocktail, but anywhere you could previously pair a shot of espresso with your dessert, you can seamlessly insert an Espresso Martini for a boozy after-dinner upgrade. Here are a few ideas for taking your dessert game to the next level when you pair the espresso martini with the following array of after-dinner specialties.
We’ll start with perhaps the simplest, least assuming item on our list: the chocolate cake. As a sidebar, you’ll notice that chocolate will serve as a constant refrain in our discussion, and with good reason. There’s nothing quite like the pairing of high-quality dark chocolate with the taste of coffee, so pairings will inevitably skew towards chocolate-rich desserts.
Chocolate cake isn’t just the simplest pairing, it’s also the most reliable and adaptable. Whether you choose an indulgent fudge or creamy butter frosting, a multi-tiered lava cake or spongy devil’s food, the entire array of cocoa-related flavors syncs well with an espresso-inspired cocktail. Even a simple vanilla cake with dark chocolate frosting, alongside an espresso martini, provides a perfect and satisfying finish to any meal.
Tiramisu is one of the most indulgent desserts on our preferred pairings list. Italian in origin, the average tiramisu includes ladyfingers or sponge cake soaked in coffee and topped with a sumptuous mix of creamy mascarpone cheese (similar to cream cheese, but with butter and eggs added for sweetness) and powdered or shaved chocolate. The result is a one-of-a-kind, gourmet dessert.
The marinated coffee flavor of tiramisu works synergistically with the espresso martini. Together, you get notes of a softer, less caffeinated coffee complete with sugar and cream juxtaposed against the robust, in-your-face nature of the espresso. The creamy cheese spread provides a soft landing that counterbalances the coffee’s stronger, earthier flavor.
Crème brûlée has a long tradition in France where the dessert originated. First appearing in the late 1600s, crème brûlée is a variation on the classic European custard, representing an evolution of the dish throughout the centuries. While time-consuming, crème brûlée is easy to make: it is simply a baked custard topped with an eye-catching crust of caramelized sugar.
Consisting mostly of eggs, pudding, and sugar, crème brûlée has a nice vanilla flavor with additional texture notes. That creamy, vanilla taste balances out the acidity from the espresso, giving you a complex and sustained concert of flavors that shifts spectrum over time. Alternate between the heavy taste of the coffee cocktail and the light, supple custard of the brûlée.
There’s candy, there’s cake, and then there’s the truffle. The chocolate truffle mixes the best of multiple worlds into a small but incredibly flavorful package—that you could eat by the handful.
For those unfamiliar, a chocolate truffle consists of a small amount of whipped chocolate (chocolate ganache) slathered in a chocolate, coconut, and tree nut exterior. Once the mixture hardens, the truffle looks like a donut hole, but that’s where the similarities end. This dessert’s pedigree creates an incredibly complex taste with earthy notes from the nuts and dark chocolate exterior, flavors that perfectly complement the taste of the espresso martini without either half stealing the show.
Like chocolate cake, there are a near-infinite number of cheesecake variations, each with its own complexity and taste. For our purposes here, we’re recommending either the tried-and-true classic version or a bolder, caramel-infused cheesecake. Regardless, ALL types of cheesecakes pair well with an espresso martini, so the sky’s the limit.
Cheesecake is one of the richest desserts you can buy— thanks in part to the liberal use of cream cheese involved. But it’s precisely that creamy, slightly bitter flavor that interacts so well with the flavor of espresso.
Not every dessert needs to be decadent. Sometimes you just want something light after a nice, filling meal. Enter the biscotti.
A biscotti is literally a cookie or biscuit made from almond flour and twice baked. You’ll often find them on the counter at your local coffee house, as they’re designed for dipping into coffee and tea drinks.
While you might not want to dip them in an espresso cocktail, their simple, subtle flavor is the perfect palate cleanser the next time you have a quality, coffee-based cocktail.
Let’s return to something chocolatey to close out our list: chocolate mousse.
Mousse is like a lighter, “fluffier” cousin of pudding. Made with sugar, eggs, butter, and cocoa powder, the mousse has a very distinct texture accompanied by a rich taste. The sweetness of the mousse is offset by the slightly bitter flavor of the cocktail, making for an elegant, tasteful bookend to dinner and drinks.
Selecting the Best Espresso Martini
Chances are that most high-end restaurants will have a mixologist with the chops to deliver you a bespoke espresso cocktail, but what if you want to replicate the taste (and experience) outside of the bar? Most of the desserts listed above are relatively easy to make in your own kitchen (or pick up to-go from your favorite spot). The cocktail, however, can be more problematic. That’s where canned cocktails come into play.
Thanks to the availability of high-quality canned cocktails today, you can experience the taste of a cold brewed espresso martini at home. Pay attention to labels and be sure your ready-to-drink cocktail has the same simple ingredients—and the same proportions—that you’d get at your local bar. With nothing but 100% real, premium ingredients, Post Meridiem’s canned espresso martini is perfect for your next three-course meal. Pick up your own pack of canned cocktails or find a store near you by visiting Post Meridiem today.