Bea Bradsell

To celebrate Espresso Martini Day, Bea Bradsell - recently appointed on-trade director at Glasgow-based agency The Drink Cabinet -  shares the story behind her father Dick Bradsell's coffee-vodka classic. 

The story of the Espresso Martini is one I’ve been telling for most of my life but one of the fantastic things about telling the tale is it’s a story that’s still developing. As people continue to discover the drink it takes on new life and evolves a little further.

To start at the beginning, the Espresso Martini was created by my father, Dick Bradsell, in Soho during the mid-1980s. The David Bowie film Absolute Beginners was being shot in the area so everyone who was anyone was flocking to Soho to try and catch a glimpse. At my father’s bar The Soho Brasserie (the sign can still be found on Old Compton Street if you search) had just had a new illy coffee machine installed and the team were getting to grips with their new cutting-edge tech.

The bar was absolutely covered in coffee and the venue was packed when a young (unnamed) model walked into the bar and asked for a drink to ‘Wake her up and fuck her up’. With a coffee covered bar and vodka being the spirit of choice at the time these were his natural first choices. Coffee liqueur rounded out the flavour before being given a hard shake.

This early iteration of the drink was poured out on the rocks and the Vodka Espresso was created. This is obviously quite different to the drink we know and love today. Perfecting the recipe was a labour of love for my dad for the next 15 years, tweaking the recipe with each menu he placed it on.

At the core of this cocktail development was the goal to create the perfect dessert cocktail which at the time he believed to be the Brandy Alexander. For him the key to this drink’s perfect balance despite its heavy flavours was that it took ingredients at different ends of the flavour palate (brandy and cream) and used bridging ingredients to round out the flavour. This was the cocktail DNA he used to finalise his recipe. Starting with premium Polish Vodka and illy coffee, his preferred ingredients, he then rounded out the flavour with a blend of coffee liqueurs.

Knowing that coffee is such a personal experience he added the detail of sugar to taste, those that drink black coffee don’t need the addition but those with a sweet tooth can. It was now the 90s so the cocktail of course had to be added to a V-shaped martini glass. The final touch was to take a leaf out of Italian drinking traditions and add 3 coffee beans as a garnish for ‘health, wealth, and happiness’.

I often get asked if my dad minded variations to the recipe and he was genuinely happy for them. Seeing his drinks spread and adapt to him showed that he’d succeeded. If anyone ever showed him a better way of making one of his drinks he’d adapt. However, over the years with all the adaptations he stayed true to his own recipe as he believed that’s what people were coming to him to drink. His recipe, as it was, can still be found at the last bar he worked in El Camion.

In the 40 years of the Espresso Martini’s history there has been a noticeable shift into global recognition. The initial popularity of the drink I credit to Australian third wave coffee culture. This passion for coffee added new dimensions to the cocktail putting as much focus into the chosen coffee as the spirit. Whilst working with my dad at El Camion we regularly had guests come in that had travelled all the way from Australia for the chance to meet the creator of the Espresso Martini. What caused the rise in the UK is a sadder story. Though appearing on menus around the country for decades it was my father’s passing that made it a staple. Many venues added memorial menus and drink specials, and this combined with a growing passion for coffee in the country made for the perfect storm. From then on there was a quick progression to becoming the household name it is today. With the rising popularity came a growth in the key ingredients.

A host of coffee liqueurs have been developed over the last few years exploring different parts of the coffee journey. Moving from deep arabica notes into brighter fruitier flavours. With these lighter flavour a new world of coffee cocktails have been unlocked. Liqueurs once relegated to desert cocktails can now be paired with a range of drink styles allowing for a new age of invention. From Negronis to Manhattans and even sours.

As beloved as the Espresso Martini has become, this rise in popularity will eventually plateau. But that doesn’t need to mean the end of the coffee cocktail. By using the elements that make up the DNA of the Espresso Martini we can continue to experiment.

This article was brought to CLASS by Drinks Distilled, which has partnered with Bea Bradsell to offer cocktail Espresso Martini cocktail sets, featuring Belvedere Pure, Mr Black coffee liqueur and Illy espresso coffee to celebrate Espresso Martini Day. For more visit here.