Inside the Rise of Cold-Brew Cocktails | Food Newsfeed
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Maker's Mark / Star Hill Provisions
Star Hill Provisions, based at Maker’s Mark’s distillery in loretto, Kentucky, combines a local cold-brew coffee in various bourbon cocktails.

Inside the Rise of Cold-Brew Cocktails

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Like the best spirits, coffee is a lush blend of bitter, sweet, and acidic—and the caffeine kick lends a lively boost to the alcohol.
By Alia Akkam November 2017 Spirits

One of my favorite New York City hangouts is the petite Amor y Amargo in the East Village, where bracing libations starring herbaceous bitters are the house specialty. Several years ago, the bar introduced its ambitious Double Buzz series, whipping up cocktails on Sunday afternoons made with single-origin coffees from a rotating cast of craft roasters. 

These smooth, caffeinated concoctions, full of body, vibrantly led customers from day into night. Since then, bartenders and guests have increasingly discovered the joys of pairing quality coffee with quality spirits. But now I have noticed special attention is being lavished upon cold brew. While everyday iced coffee is simply cooled down from its heated state, cold brew—as its name implies—is actually brewed cold. The result of this direct approach is coffee that is sweeter, that flaunts lower acidity, and that has more caffeine than its watery counterpart getting the ice cube treatment. Even after the temperatures dip, I still seek out cold brew often for its unrivaled invigoration. It’s been interesting to observe bartenders who are doing the same thing. 

When Capo, the Italian restaurant in South Boston, started preparing cold brew in-house, bar manager Kevin Mabry immediately thought of all his positive experiences at Amor y Amargo. “They meticulously measured and made the coffee to order and blended it with spirits,” he recalls. After Amor y Amargo discontinued Double Buzz, Mabry was so buoyed by memories of the program that he asked the New York bar team if he could continue the branded ritual in New England. 

With their blessing, Double Buzz is now a vital component of Sunday brunch at Capo, with guests choosing from cold-brew drinks like the Minty Fresh Morning (Plantation rum, Branca Menta, and lime), Go-Go (Lunazul blanco tequila, Averna, and Luxardo maraschino), and Capo-Cino (Four Roses bourbon, Cocktail & Sons spiced demerara syrup, and whole egg). 

“Coffee is already a well-balanced ingredient. A perfect cup is a harmonious balance of bitter, sweet, and acidic. In mixology, these are the attributes we strive to perfect in every cocktail,” Mabry says. “Working with coffee in drinks allows for those nuanced tones to be amplified—and that caffeine kick doesn’t hurt, either.” Capo brunch-goers might first be surprised by these unconventional offerings, but come around once the restaurant’s bartenders share how the presence of coffee complements, rather than overpowers, the cocktails. “After one sip, we’ve gained their trust and they are hooked,” Mabry says. 

They may not have such a well-rounded coffee component to their cocktail program as Capo’s, but other restaurant bars are cleverly showing off their affinity for cold brew. Consider the New York City outpost of Rainer Becker’s flashy Japanese empire Zuma, which uses cold brew in the Nitro Espresso Martini, served straight from the tap. 

In downtown Los Angeles, a Cold Brew Martini with Absolut Elyx vodka also shines on the menu of Otium. Bar director Chris Amirault says that diners continually asked for an Espresso Martini, so it “came time for us to R&D one. We decided to put a culinary twist on it and have it served on the dessert menu.” Assistant bar program director Brian Hollingsworth had the idea of reducing cold brew down with sugar to act as the sweet component, and Amirault suggested adding caffé mocha “to give more depth of that Italian espresso flavor.” The presentation also sells, as Amirault adds, “Topped with bourbon vanilla whip, the layered look has all the guests at the bar asking, ‘What is that?’ Suddenly they want one as well.”

Vodka and coffee work well together in creamy after-dinner drinks. For example, Red Diamond, the long-time coffee, tea, and foodservice company based in Birmingham, Alabama, is showcasing its cold brew as a labor-saving addition to bar menus in such mainstream cocktails as the White Russian–like Cold Brew Vanilla Latte, with vanilla vodka and cream or milk over ice. But the pairing of whiskey and coffee is particularly fruitful for versatile cocktails. The Frozen Irish Coffee—with Café du Monde chicory cold brew, Tullamore DEW, and Cathead Distillery’s Hoodoo chicory liqueur—is both a happy hour and a nightcap favorite at Home Team BBQ, the barbecue restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, and Aspen, Colorado, that is owned by pitmaster Aaron Siegel. 

“Cold brewing is a terrific method for unlocking and extracting the flavors of coffee,” says beverage director Adam Rothstein. “Due to the deep chocolaty and fruity characteristics of coffee, it’s a terrific foil for whiskeys and brandies. It syncs perfectly with the spirits’ similar notes and brings out some of the more subtle ones such as toffee, cherry, and cacao.” 

To conjure the earthiness and texture of a Vietnamese iced coffee, Rothstein opts for a cold-brew concentrate from Café du Monde Chicory Coffee and balances it against sweetened condensed milk. A garnish of smoked Maldon salt and cacao nibs provides “one last savory counterpunch to the richness of the drink, sort of like dipping a salty french fry in a chocolate milkshake.”

My love of, and daily necessity for, black coffee naturally leads me to cocktails that embrace it. As someone who loathes milk—ordering a cappuccino always begins with the hope that this place has the power to make me a foam convert, but alas, turns into a naked Americano for the second round—it’s the boozy, bitter creations synonymous with Double Buzz that appeal to me more than the ones that mimic dessert. 

As a whiskey lover, I am eager to try the Family Meal cocktail at Star Hill Provisions, on the grounds of the Maker’s Mark distillery in Loretto, Kentucky. Alongside its candied bacon BLTs, the restaurant combines a cold-brew coffee concentrate from nearby Harden coffee roasters with its signature bourbon, Mexican Coke, and lime. Likewise, inspired by a trip to Buenos Aires, “which broadened my appreciation for great-tasting coffee,” says Eric Loring, beverage director of TAMO Bistro + Bar, inside the Seaport Hotel in Boston. He makes the delicious-sounding Bruce Wayne, bringing together a custom Angel’s Envy bourbon-blend with cold brew and maple syrup. The coffee in South America was, he says, so good without the addition of cream or sugar and he wanted the same pure results stateside. He found it in cold brew, “which captures a similar richness and allows for great possibilities in our cocktail program.” 

During my cold-brew research, what captivated me the most is how Chris Adams, principal of the Los Angeles–based consulting firm Ellis Adams Group, turns to the slow-drip method—not for coffee to add to cocktails, but to infuse and intensify other ingredients directly into spirits. “When we thought about the cold-brew process, the goal of it is to get a stronger flavor out of the coffee, so we decided to do the same with booze,” Adams says. “With cold brew you get a fresh, full, bright, and consistent flavor, rather than a sugary, concentrated one. The alcohol goes at the top, and in the center we choose fresh fruit, herbs, or tea. The options are endless with this technique, and we love experimenting with savory items like coriander and matcha.” 

At 1KEPT in Charleston, South Carolina, for instance, cold brews line the back bar “like a science project,” Adams says. They are a conversation starter between bartenders and guests since most guests haven’t seen them. This provides staff the opportunity to educate, encouraging customers to order, say, the Kicked By the Mule (Stoli vodka, lime, ginger, citric acid, and ginger beer) or the Charleston Tea Old Fashioned (HillBilly bourbon, Charleston Tea Plantation Earl Grey, black cherry, and clementine peels). Cold-brewing four liters of spirit for 36 hours has another boon for the time-strapped bartender: “It helps us cut down on the number of steps in a basic cocktail with a bunch of crazy ingredients,” Adams says.