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.
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.
Ice cream is my favorite coffee complement, its creaminess adding great texture. If you're not in a cocktail mood, simply pour a shot of espresso on top of a scoop of ice cream (for me, it's vanilla) for a perfect affogato: so simple, so delicious.
Ice cream combines easily with coffee in cocktails; really the only thing to avoid is over-blending. For a fun, fast start, combine 3.5 ounces of vanilla ice cream, two ladyfinger cookies, a dash of cocoa powder, and a double espresso in a blender for 20 seconds. There you have it: a drinkable tiramisu.
Expand your repertoire with different ice cream flavors. Chocolate, pistachio, and other nut-flavored ice creams combine beautifully with coffee. Always remember this rule of thumb: try avoiding the overly sweet and fruity, especially citrus-flavored ice creams. Instead, try adding fresh or dried fruits. Bananas, figs, and cherries all can be good, but avoid unripe fruit, whose astringency will completely alter a drink's taste. Chopped chestnuts, almonds, and other nuts are welcome companions, too.
On a diet, or out of ice cream? Simply blend ice, half of one ripe banana, one ounce of simple syrup, and a double espresso for 30 seconds in the blender. Another simple pleasure.
Shaken or stirred? Blended or mixed?
You now have the basics to start inventing your own fabulous coffee cocktails. But the age-old question remains, better known to mixologists than baristas: how to combine to best effect? Like with traditional cocktails, it depends on drink type and personal preferences. The four basic ways to combine will come as no surprise: stirred, shaken, mixed, and blended.
For stirred drinks, simply stir the ingredients in a tall glass or your trusty cocktail shaker; use a lot of ice. As logic dictates, this method works only when all the ingredients are liquid, like espresso, liquor, milk, almond milk, simple syrup, coconut milk, liquid chocolate, etc. The result is a straight drink, with no foam or emulsion: very liquid with a lot of taste.
Shaken drinks follow the same principles as stirred; instead of stirring, shake the ingredients vigorously in a shaker for about five seconds. I prefer the Boston shaker, composed of separate metal and glass halves, instead of the perhaps more common three-piece, all-metal shakers. I like the additional room inside Boston shakers, and find them easier to open. The result is an emulsified drink with foam on top, a little smoother tasting then a stirred drink made from the same ingredients.
Mixing follows the same basic principles as stirring and shaking. Mix liquid-only ingredients for about 30 to 40 seconds in an electric milkshake machine (like a Hamilton Beach-type machine with a long wand), using only about four or five ice cubes. The result will be an almost creamy drink, very smooth.
Blending is a different story: the black sheep of the family. A blender's crushing action enables the introduction of solid and semi-solid ingredients like the nuts, dried fruits, ice creams, and cookies mentioned earlier. Use a volume of ice slightly greater than the volume of the glass you're going to drink from. When using ice cream, don't use ice. Blend for about 30 seconds.
Try this at home
Like most things, making great coffee cocktails is best kept simple, making them an ideal way to delight friends (or just yourself) right at home. No exotic equipment necessary. If you have an espresso machine, you probably have everything you need to get started. Ice is all it takes to properly chill your coffee.
For me, preparing coffee cocktails is another kind of ritual. It's another reason we drink coffee, following from the basic key steps: choosing the right coffee, grinding it properly, having the right water in the tank, heating the cups, waiting for the brewing, and then enjoying the taste and aroma. Wonderfully complex and simple, all at once.
Coffee cocktails beautifully embody coffee's social aspect, too. Whether at home or in a café, what a nice way to spend time with friends, inventing or just enjoying something new while catching up, sharing ideas, or just enjoying being together. All served up in the centuries-old coffee house tradition.
Yet more evidence that coffee is not a mere beverage, but fuel for our lives.