The Best Local Spots to Sip Espresso Martinis Like a '90s Boss
Chokers are back. So is Sex and the City, and The Sopranos. Dance clubs around the city are making bank off '90s dance nights. But if you really need proof that one of the most maligned of decades is trending again, look to cocktail bars around Portland, where espresso martini fever has reached far and wide.
It’s no secret that this city loves its coffee, but in a town full of artfully balanced craft cocktails, it's time for a deep dive into why this sugary, nostalgic, in-your-face vodka-based cocktail is having such a moment.
The espresso martini was thought to be invented in the late 1980s after a model walked into London craft cocktail pioneer Dick Bradsell’s bar and asked for a drink: “Wake me up, then f*ck me up.” The classic recipe mixes vodka, espresso liqueur, and a shot of espresso, with three coffee beans on top for good luck—like a classier relative of the Red Bull and vodka, or the caffeinated Four Loko (RIP).
Teardrop Lounge (1015 NW Everett St) owner and bartender Daniel Shoemaker has been behind the bar for 25 years, when the first wave of the espresso martini was still going strong. “In the 90s…you had your cosmos, kamikazes, you had all this sugar and acid, all that nonsense,” he says. “The espresso martini was part of the core canon.” But does he like them? His answer: a blunt no.
Until recently, Shoemaker thought his espresso martini-making days were over. But when Teardrop Lounge reopened in May 2021 after a pandemic hiatus, the bar ran out of its housemade Coava Coffee liqueur within five days. In pre-covid days, that same bottle would have lasted a couple years. But the rebirth of the espresso martini, spurred by TikTok and reality TV shows, swept drinkers during the pandemic, much like the whipped and way-too-sweet Dalgona coffee. It’s also, at its simplest, a three-ingredient cocktail that’s not too intimidating to try making at home. The '90s nostalgia appears to be limited to this cocktail, Shoemaker says; he hasn't noticed an uptick in requests for lemon drops or Cosmos. The most surprising thing? Teardrop Lounge doesn’t even have espresso martinis on its menu, nor does Shoemaker have any plans to add one.
But you can still order an espresso martini upon request. The outcome is reminiscent of a Starbucks iced coffee in its overwhelming sugariness, though the Coava coffee liqueur is a noticeable improvement. Overall verdict: 3 coffee beans.
At the newly opened Italian American restaurant Gabbiano’s (5411 NE 30th Ave), I closed out a meal of fried mozzarella and duck marsala with blood orange panna cotta and my very first espresso martini, a dessert menu exclusive. This mostly classic version is a sugary, bold sipper full of Italian espresso liqueur that tastes more Dutch Brothers than Stumptown, though with the bougie addition of brown sugar orange oil syrup, and I love it. It fits right in with the rest of the menu: hip and trend-conscious with plenty of opportunity to indulge those base pleasures of fried cheese cups and caffeinated sugar. Verdict: 3.5 coffee beans.
At classic Hawthorne hang The Sapphire Hotel (5008 SE Hawthorne Blvd), coffee cocktails get their own corner of the menu, headlined by the Not an Espresso Martini: a blend of vodka, Fernet, cold brew concentrate, and salted brown sugar. Truthfully, it tastes to me like an espresso martini, though neither sweet nor salty, nor could I detect the herbal mouthwash flavors of Fernet—it’s like someone poured vodka into my morning cold brew and added a fancy little foam. Verdict: 3 coffee beans.
Canard (734 E Burnside St), like Teardrop Lounge, started getting inundated with requests for espresso martinis about eight months ago. Unlike Teardrop, the restaurant gave into the trend and added it to the menu, but decided to put its own twist on it, subbing out the brewed coffee and espresso liqueur with Dolin Blanc that’s been infused with coffee beans, plus the addition of yellow chartreuse and orange bitters. The end result is merely a whisper to an espresso martini, like an espresso martini had died in your glass and left only its ghostly shell. I promise that’s actually a good thing—it brings out all the fruity, toasty notes of coffee, like the way it smells when it’s brewing in the morning, without any saccharine qualities. Verdict: 4 coffee beans.
My favorite, though, was Sunshine Noodles’s (2175 NW Raleigh St Suite 105) Le Quick Fix, a collaborative creation from chef Diane Lam and bartender Josh Whinnery. The drink blends ‘90s nostalgia with today’s trend of fat-washed liquor. Here, brown butter-washed Old Forester bourbon meets a blend of amaros, housemade Vietnamese coffee syrup, and a float of heavy cream topped with nutty cracked black pepper. When sipped, the cream float gives the drink a layered texture, kind of like drinking cheese tea. The coffee flavor is bold and assertive yet only slightly sweet, with complexity from the amaros. It goes down quickly, as the name might imply, and the caffeine gave me a much-needed boost for my post-dinner Saturday night of salsa dancing. Maybe espresso martinis are actually a utilitarian thing for our pandemic-sapped bodies, not just a viral trend. Verdict: 5 coffee beans!
“I think Dick [Bradsell] has a number of great cocktails,” says Shoemaker, citing the Bramble—a blend of gin, lemon, simple syrup, and creme de mure over crushed ice—as one of them. “And the espresso martini was never one of what I thought was one of those. But again, he created it for a specific purpose. And I think he did a great job with that.”