Food & DrinkFood Features

Tracing Charlotte’s Obsession With the Espresso Martini

An espresso martini in a glass on a bar
“The Goddamned Espresso Martini” at Humbug. (Photo by Timothy DePeugh)

Along one of the more hopping stretches of The Plaza, where aggressive traffic patterns and aggressively priced real estate zig-zag through rows of tattoo parlors, sacrosanct bodegas and smoke shops — all still safe (#blessed) from (oh em gee) The Latest Instagrammable Things just to the north or south — friends Larry Suggs and Andy Schools joined forces to resurrect a space in one of those new retail developments that, thanks to the pandemic, was a skeleton way before it ever had a chance to show the neighborhood what it could do.

Not that either of them had anything else to prove.

Humbug, their brief in-residence pop-up in the lobby of the Refuge Hotel, joined the pantheon of Great Queen City Cocktail Bars from the moment it opened. Now with its own permanent home, which officially opened on June 21, the two friends hope to ride that wave of popularity far off into the Fernet-hued sunset. From the early preview I was granted, I see nothing stopping them.

The venue itself is one thing — a dive bar ratcheted up three income brackets and crafted with a sort of dark, modern aesthetic confidence that is likely to make even the biggest bro go, “Bruh.”

The cocktail list, of course, is entirely another.

“No Mango For You!” — the opening menu’s most quaffable — uses matcha to make mango somehow taste more like mango, and the namesake “Humbug Martini” eschews olives in favor of a pickled tomato, which sends the citrus notes — here orange, instead of lemon — up into the stratosphere.

But there is one cocktail, not that either Larry or Andy had anything else to prove, that appears to be designed for the masses, by two men who have built reputations on deigning to pander, who nevertheless now pander. Its ingredients are simple, ranging from the obvious (vodka, espresso liqueur) and the obviously sourced (espresso from neighbors Summit Coffee), to the ones of the “always delicious, never pretentious” sort that Humbug calls its trademark — in this case salted coconut foam and, in a stroke of genius that should surprise no one who follows upscale cocktail bars in Charlotte, Fernet Branca.

By now, dear readers, it should be clear to you what cocktail they have wrought, but the punchline to this very long setup is the best part: the drink’s name. Embossed beautifully albeit obscurely in the middle of the menu, it reads simply as: “The Goddamned Espresso Martini.”

The espresso martini is not a crime … is it?

My triggers are complicated, so I sought the opinions of those far wiser than me.

Kathleen Purvis — friend, mentor and Eternal Sunshine Goddess of Southern Food Writing — wrote to me that, “Nothing good can come from being that drunk and that wide awake.” If her view, as clear as proper cocktail ice, were correct, then surely the police would have been involved at some point.

To that end, over the past couple of years, how many drunk and disorderly arrests do you think have been made in Charlotte where the contributing factors involved one too many espresso martinis?

It’s a trick question.

I, of course, was too shy to call the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department myself, so I fobbed the research off onto my editor, who laughed or may have waited until he got off the phone. Unless I had the name of a victim, he said, I would never be able to find out: espresso martinis, Hennessy, Cristal, or White Claw — all are equal in the eyes of Charlotte’s men in blue in that none is worthy of mention in a police report.

And while at many points while doing research for this story I did actually feel like a victim, name dropping myself would get me nowhere, especially when it doesn’t even get me invited to restaurant openings or media events in this town.

Dejected, I went to Billy Sunday on a Monday.

There, Brian DuBois — assistant manager and resident papa bear — growled when I asked about his take on the espresso martini’s takeover.

“Oh God,” he roared. “Don’t ever make me make one of those things again.”

Instead, he delegated the task to a protege behind the bar whose last name has far too many letters to be real, so we shall call him, “Joe.”

A bartender hands over an espresso martini in a china cup
Billy Sunday’s version of an espresso martini, called “Mexi’Spressi.” (Photo by Timothy DePeugh)

Joe took the task seriously — as one should for a drink that can account for 18% of Billy Sunday’s sales on any given night — mixing, squirting, shaking and such. They call it “Mexi’Spressi” here, and one can only assume it’s because it contains ancho chili. Even without being able to actually taste the chili, the drink both drinks and looks cute, but therein was another one of this bitter old queen’s triggers.

You see, I ate pie here once at Billy Sunday. On Thanksgiving. With drag queens. Would any drag queen worth her weight in glitter and struggles be caught dead drinking an espresso martini, even if it were served in her grandmother’s wedding china?

Maybe. But then again, this research was taking place during Pride Month, so give a girl a break.

Perhaps wisdom is just lost on this boy who grew up treating his TV like his only sibling.

Sex and the City informed my early cocktail choices after I had turned 21, not once but many times before and after the actual event thanks to two guys in my college dorm and their laser-printed fake IDs.

In fact, now that I think about it, whatever actually happened to the Cosmopolitan? Lord Jesus, I downed those things when I was a 20-something twink. I felt cool, I felt alive. I was a Carrie! Living life as a Miranda! While secretly a Samantha! Dressed as a Charlotte! I was living in Tokyo at the time, and every time I ordered one, even the bartenders there would roll their eyes.

Was (is!) the Cosmopolitan my generation’s espresso martini? I’m not that old, but nevertheless, I traveled to South End for perspective.

A history lesson on the espresso martini

Amanda Britton is a lot of things, and at Lincoln Street Kitchen and The Green Room, that includes librarian.

Her cocktails, as have always been the case, have more wit and insight than anything found in The New Yorker, but this time around, they also have history.

On a recent afternoon pre-service, she both schooled and humored me, while in her own special way telling me to back off coming for the espresso martini.

“What you may not realize is,” she said, “this drink was created by someone who’s super well respected in the industry.”

Dick Bradsell, the late British cocktail legend who was a mixologist before that word became cringe, invented many a drink in his day that are now considered to be classics.

The Bramble was one, and another, according to Amanda, he created when a supermodel walked into his bar and asked for something that was going to “fuck her up and wake her up.”

“You’re talking about Kate Moss, aren’t you?” I asked.

This may have been the late ’80s, but instead of cocaine, Dick mixed vodka, coffee liqueur and espresso with ice in a tall Collins glass. The supermodel (“It’s Naomi Campbell, isn’t it?”) approved, thus forever making Dick to cocktails what Oppenheimer was to plutonium.

The version Amanda created for Lincoln Street Kitchen may be zhuzhed up — the coffee liqueur is house-made, and the drink is served in a martini glass — but it is nevertheless a straightforward nod to the Bradsellian original.

The drink’s popularity would almost seem a given, but for the fact that it doesn’t even appear by name on the menu, a detail that Amanda left until the end in order to illustrate the espresso martini’s Cheers factor: in a bar, everyone knows it by name.

At The Green Room, though, Lincoln Street Kitchen’s bar-within-a-bar, Amanda strays gallantly from the straightforward, possibly to save herself from an early death by “Oh God, not again,” but really in order to keep things interesting with a more sophisticated point of view that will also challenge customers who might have by now taken the original for granted.

Called “Carojillo,” it’s an homage to a cocktail typically found in Latin countries that is mostly equal parts spirit and espresso, but the really clever upleveling here comes from Fernet Branca infused with cacao nibs.

“Now this is an espresso martini,” I told her. I may have in that instant even come close to forgiving it for almost wiping away entirely my precious memories of the Cosmopolitan.

“But you know what the reason for that is, right?” Amanda asked. “You came of age right when Sex and the City was becoming a phenomenon. People today came of age after years of Starbucks when Frappuccinos were becoming a phenomenon.”

I remained cool as I learned two years ago when I first met Amanda that I should always be ready for sudden droppings of wisdom.

Could the explanation really be as simple, though, as popular culture and the fickleness of human nature?  Maybe. I’m sure my grandparents missed the cocaine when the makers took it out of the cola.

Salted Melon has a make-your-own espresso martini menu

Perhaps the Frappuccino and the espresso martini needed for the other to be around in order to exist. If astronomers keep claiming to have no evidence of dark matter, despite the universe being composed mostly of it, then look no further than the drink the Frappuccino begot.

Or maybe it’s less complicated than the Big Bang, and in true Z-illennial fashion, the Frappuccino just needed to be validated. Yes, this is crass and condescending to Z-illennials, but then so are the espresso martinis at Salted Melon, where I went for more research.

What drew me into the bowels of South End right to the corner of Instagram and Ashleigh was not the desire to see yet another market-cum-café-cum-bar community space concept in this town, but to instead work my way through their internet-famous “make your own” espresso martini menu. Surely it couldn’t be as bad as it sounds?

An espresso martini in a glass on a bar
An espresso martini at Salted Melon in South End. (Photo by Timothy DePeugh)

Right off the bat, Salted Melon assistant GM and bartender Lexi Davis had me figured out. She made a great show of apologizing that they had run out of biscotti liqueur, and I made a great show of shaking my fist at no one in particular in defiance of the amazing drink that might have been.

There were still three other choices of base spirit: two types of vodka and an orange liqueur. After that, a choice of flavor and of topping, none of which would look out of place scattered all over the counter at a Starbucks. I went all in because how could I not? Orange liqueur, hazelnut and a dusting of cocoa-flavored matcha powder.

While there are far worse things to drink and far healthier ways to come down with diabetes, I — Tim DePeugh, victim to things having now gone way too far — thought the whole thing really did belong in a police report, despite what my editor or CMPD thought. But only after I took the perfect aesthetic shot for the ‘Gram.

Only when I left did it occur to me that, while Amanda’s Frappucino theory clearly had merit, there might also be something more socioeconomic at play. There in South End, where Charlotte’s young and upwardly mobile all somehow find their way, appearances, more than anything else, mean everything. I have never truly believed that so many people actually love dogs, for example.

And as far as espresso martinis are concerned, on those late crazy nights that end only a few hours before church on Sunday, remember the drink that our forefathers sought out? A vodka Red Bull.

This is South End, friends, not a dive bar; those can stay in LoSo. In this version of Charlotte, therefore, it could be that ordering a vodka Red Bull has become unattractive or even gauche. But an espresso martini? Take my new money!

The last call for alcohol and coffee

This isn’t the first time I’ve destroyed my liver for a story, and it won’t be the last. If my writing ever does serve as the basis for charging me with a crime, then let the facts clearly state that I first conceived of this conspiracy to make Charlotteans drink better espresso martinis at Idlewild in NoDa.

The versions at Idlewild — all deliciously diverse — are heavily dependent on the person making the drink on the particular night one decides that ordering an espresso martini is the right thing to do in a place like this.

A bartender mixes up an espresso martini at Idlewild
Tristan Hunt mixes up an espresso martini at Idlewild. (Photo by Timothy DePeugh)

Bartender Amanda Wallace’s version came swirling with coffee and hints of chili and candied orange, tasting clean and invigorating, like the first deep breath outside on a cold winter morning. Bartender Tristan Hunt’s version was richer, creamier and tasted of egg nog. That both versions of the same superficial cocktail had such new and profound things to say told me that there still might be hope for the victims of things having gone just way too far.

But if and when a jury returns a verdict of not guilty on those charges due to reasonable doubt, I will point to Fin & Fino in Uptown as my savior. Bar manager Brittany Kellum, more than anyone else I had spoken to over the past few weeks, seemed at peace with the espresso martini when I asked her how she felt about it being a thing that is now forever a part of our lives.

A bartender smiles behind a bar as she poses with an espresso martini
Fin & Fino bar manager Brittany Kellum’s version of an espresso martini. (Photo by Timothy DePeugh)

Instead of pandering, upleveling or going off the deep end, her version owes itself to the technical prowess on display in mixing spirits just so, and serving them at temperatures just so, that when I took my first sip and placed my hand on my suddenly palpitating heart, I finally understood the ask behind that supermodel’s brief.

She wasn’t trying to be difficult; she just wanted something to fuck her up and wake her up, goddamn it. And despite my mentor’s concerns, I suspected but would never admit out loud — I would only write it all down here to you, dear readers, on the silent page — that there might be a glimmer of something good coming from it, whether that be a trend that’s been a boon for bar business across Charlotte in these post-COVID times, or that it gets me an appointment with a cardiologist.


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