Only 13 percent of U.S. operators feature a coffee cocktail on their menus, according to Datassential. But that could soon change.
The marriage between coffee and cocktail is far from new, but in the modern world of craft everything, old standbys like Irish coffee and Kahlua feel a bit ho-hum. So naturally, the beverage innovators decided to shake (brew, infuse, etc.) up something new, from beaned-up stouts to coffee-infused wine and tropical riffs on the classic coffee cocktail.
But as with most up-and-coming trends, some out-of-the-box iterations proved more successful than others. Three years ago, wine giant Apothic introduced a cold brew–infused red wine following the success of its whiskey barrel–aged red blend. Despite the buzz around Apothic Brew, the wine has not found the same mass appeal as others in the Apothic family.
Coffee shop micro-chain and canned cold brew brand La Colombe has been dabbling in coffee-alcohol combinations for nearly a decade, first with a coffee-infused rum and later a hard cold brew. Although the latter seems especially on trend given the recent proliferation of other low-ABV canned drinks like hard seltzer, La Colombe has discontinued the rum and hard cold brew for now.
Nevertheless, these forays signal a shift in consumer palates as well as operator capability.
“I am calling this age [a] golden one for coffee cocktails, as there are more and more bartenders interested in coffee and baristas in cocktails,” says Martin Hudak, partner and bartender at cocktail bar Maybe Sammy in Sydney, Australia. “Even consumers are more educated, and they want to know where their coffee comes from and how it is made. I can see the increase of modern coffee cocktails creations where we don’t have to drink only espresso martinis but also other interesting combinations.”
Maybe Sammy roasts its espresso in house to ensure the coffee stays strong against other robust flavors in drinks like the Espresso MarTIKI, which puts a tropical twist on a classic coffee cocktail. Dark rum, Mr Black Cold Brew Coffee Liqueur, and a shot of espresso are brightened by pineapple juice and orgeat syrup. Another concoction, the Harlem Shake, combines coffee from Ethiopia’s Oromia region with cognac, amaro, and ginger syrup.
Despite a myriad of fresh flavor profiles and alcoholic applications, only 13 percent of U.S. operators feature a coffee cocktail on their menus, according to Datassential. That could soon change; Datassential also reported that 62 percent of consumers who have tried a coffee cocktail, have enjoyed it.
In Austin, Texas, Better Half Coffee & Cocktails had the expertise, tools, and complementary resources—thanks to its sister concepts, including the attached Holdout Brewing—to create high-caliber coffee cocktails. But as cofounder Matthew Bolick points out, that’s not always the case.
“Everything we’ve done started with coffee and beer. I think that a lot of times restaurants that do coffee come from the restaurant side, and they’re like, ‘Oh, we should maybe have coffee,’ and then it ends up being pretty crummy,” he says. “For us, it was just in our nature. … It’s an obvious marriage of two things we love.”
Bolick hails from a coffee background; after cutting his teeth at Starbucks some 15 years ago, he went on to lead the coffee bar at Frank—a now-defunct hot dog joint/cocktail bar that was also the first Austin coffee shop to serve Intelligentsia coffee. When Frank closed, he started his own restaurants including several collaborations, like Better Half and Little Brother, alongside Matt and Grady Wright.
Better Half’s java lineup includes CFT (iced coffee, aztec bitters, fernet menta, and mint), Waiting for Coffee (rum, cold brew, dry curacao, and falernum syrup liqueur), and Better Half Irish Coffee—a frozen “Sloppie” with Jameson Cold Brew Irish Whisky, cold brew ice cream, and cinnamon-cardamom syrup. One of Little Brother’s two locations also serves an espresso martini and a Blackstrap Cap, which Bolick compares to a frappuccino but with blackstrap rum.
While restaurants like Better Half and Maybe Sammy benefit from professional-grade espresso machines and grinders, restaurants and bars without such equipment are now able to dip their toes in the coffee cocktail trend thanks to the cold brew zeitgeist. Operators can source craft-quality cold brew or cold brew–infused liqueurs and experiment with various recipes.
“The easiest way to create a new coffee cocktail is to take a classic recipe and twist it,” Hudak says. “If you don’t have a coffee machine or you’re working in a fast environment, I highly recommend using a quality coffee liqueur like Mr Black.”
In light of COVID-19, Datassential has predicted that coffee cocktails will continue to grow in canned format. While this presents an opportunity for CPG-centric brands like La Colombe, restaurants may also join the movement, especially given rolled-back restrictions on alcoholic drinks to-go.
Some operators have already embraced the format. Aside from shot glasses, Little Brother has never had glassware on-site, so the team would make cocktails in batches and then can them. This system was in place long before COVID-19, but it proved a game changer in adapting to dine-in restrictions and the surge in takeout demand. Now Better Half and other restaurants in the portfolio are following suit.
For restaurants that still find the idea of coffee cocktails a bit daunting, Bolick recommends they put a caffeine fiend behind the bar.
“It’s super-hard to get such a volatile product like coffee to be well-balanced and both be in the cocktail but not overpower it. I think that is where a lot of people go wrong,” he says.“If you’ve got somebody who’s really stoked on coffee and booze and everything surrounding it, I think that you’re going to end up with a cool opportunity to put some coffee cocktails on your menu.”