For the most part, I'm a coffee purist: black, no milk, no sugar. I appreciate a variety of preparation methods, but espresso is my favorite. By design, the interplay of pressure and heat extracts coffee's very best elements: its true essence.
So when I see one little shot of espresso drowning in a sea of milk, I scratch my head. I want to save that shot from going down for the count, throw it a life preserver. My best guess is that fans of super-size lattes really aren't crazy about coffee's taste. Why else reduce it to near imperceptibility? Add a pump or two (or three) of syrup—game over. Good-quality beans or not, you need a forensics expert to merely detect them. One of my masters back in Trieste, Dr. Marino Petracco, goes as far as to consider such additives contaminants, sadly masking a good coffee's aroma and taste, or transforming a bad coffee into a drinkable beverage.
A fabulous coffee cocktail for me is the best way to accompany an already great dessert.
This doesn't mean there isn't a place for coffee-based beverages; quite the contrary. The art and pleasure lie in ensuring that the coffee shines through, and using ingredients that complement coffee's signature taste. I consider iced coffee, that staple of these past steamy months, the most basic of coffee cocktails. Like so many culinary delights, so much is in the occasion, timing, and simplicity. A fabulous coffee cocktail for me is the best way to accompany an already great dessert.
Along with colleagues and my good friends Michele and Heidi, I've done a good deal of experimenting over the past 10 years, developing, tasting, rejecting, reinventing, and refining hundreds of coffee cocktails, both with and without alcohol, nearly exclusively espresso-based. Through all our hits and misses, there is always one guiding objective: coffee must remain the predominant taste.
Through it all, I've seen some very simple but important rules of thumb emerge that make coffee cocktails a joy to invent and make, and an even greater pleasure to drink.
Coffee preparation and basic ingredients
First, it won't exactly shock you hear me say that the coffee's initial preparation is a coffee cocktail's most critical variable. I maintain that espresso is by far the coffee cocktail's best foundation. Espresso is more concentrated than filter or French press, giving it a more "coffee" taste that retains its primacy in the final concoction. Logically, it's critical to use a very high-quality coffee and extract it properly, or risk a shaky foundation, putting the rest of the project in immediate jeopardy.
Critical: Never use espresso prepared in advance, but make it at the moment you need it for a cocktail. An espresso's flavor profile can change dramatically mere minutes after extraction.
Next, take great care in choosing your remaining ingredients. Unlike a hot beverage like cappuccino where whole milk is ideal, lower-fat milk, either 2-percent or 1-percent, makes for better cold cocktails. Whole milk is a little bit heavy for refreshing coffee drinks, and its high fat content creates a sort of "fat layer" in your mouth—refreshing upon first try, to be sure, but leaving behind a fatty aftertaste that diminishes each successive sip's flavor.
If a recipe or your sweet tooth calls for sugar, keep in mind that regular granulated sugar doesn't dissolve well in cold liquid. Be sure to add granulated sugar to a just-made espresso before mixing it with other ingredients, or, better, use simple syrup prepared in advance from equal parts sugar and boiling water.
While associating the word "contaminant" with syrup might be a tad extreme (we coffee people, we get passionate), do try to avoid using too much syrup, if any at all. If you must get syrupy, choose ones with no preservatives or artificial flavors. Use less than half as much syrup as espresso. Avoid lemon, orange, strawberry, or other overly sweet or sour flavorings that simply don't complement coffee's flavor.
Alcohol and coffee
Coffee and alcohol play great together in cocktails. Unflavored vodka's neutrality and absence of taste make it an especially welcome companion. Rum and whisky each make good complements, as do Baileys, other coffee liqueurs, and Amaretto di Saronno.
Really, most distillates and other liquors can make good friends with coffee. You'll want to avoid anything derived from wine, like vermouth, and very fruity, sweet liqueurs like crème de cassis. Orange-based liqueurs like Cointreau or Grand Marnier can be used, but with care. The only one true enemy of coffee's taste is gin. Its herbal properties are at odds with coffee's chocolate and other key components.
No matter the spirit, the golden rule in coffee cocktails is not using more distillate or liquor than coffee (a one-to-one ratio maximum). Drier-tasting liquors may need a little bit of sugar to balance the drink.
My favorite "keep it simple" cocktail: Combine 10 ice cubes with one ounce of vodka, 1 ounce of coffee liqueur, and one double espresso (two ounces). Shake vigorously in a cocktail shaker, and serve over ice. Starting with good coffee, it's a guaranteed winner.