Bartenders and baristas have a lot more in common than you think. Although bartenders usually deal with alcoholic drinks while baristas deal mostly with coffee, both jobs require a keen sense of taste, a refined palate, and a willingness to learn all about flavours, ingredients and making a balanced drink.
According to coffee cocktails specialist Martin Hudák, both baristas and bartenders have a lot to learn from one another, and he sees it as his job to try and bridge that gap between the two.
A former senior bartender at one of the world’s best bars – American Bar at The Savoy in London – Hudák is the 2017 champion of the World Coffee in Good Spirit competition, an international competition that highlights and promotes the combination of coffee and spirits and encourages bartenders and baristas alike to come up with innovative ways to combine the two.
He now travels around the world doing consultation work on coffee and cocktails, and was recently in Malaysia to conduct a series of courses for Barista Guild Asia to educate baristas and bartenders on coffee cocktails, and working a guest shift at cocktail bar Omakase + Appreciate.
According to Hudák, the most important component of a coffee cocktail is the coffee. “The coffee has to be good. It’s a ‘coffee cocktail’, not ‘cocktail coffee’,” he said with a laugh.
“The quality of the coffee determines the quality of the drink itself. It’s the same for other drinks. For a good Old Fashion, you need good whiskey. Gin and tonics … 80% of it is the tonic!”
“If you use a bad coffee, you’ll ruin the experience. It might taste overly burnt or bitter. You want some fruity, citrusy flavours in your coffee. At the end of the day, coffee is a fruit, and it should taste like a fruit,” he said.
One of the reasons he is so passionate about making new coffee cocktails is because there just aren’t many classic cocktails out there in the first place. The most famous ones are the Irish Coffee and the Espresso Martini, which he was kind enough to make for me during the interview.
Made with brewed coffee, Irish whiskey, sugar syrup, and a head of cream on top of it that makes it look like a pint of Guinness, Irish coffee was invented back in the 1940s, at a place called Foynes in Ireland.
Pan American passenger planes used to stop there before making their way across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States, and a chef named Joe Sheridan would serve passengers a cup of coffee with a shot of Irish whiskey added to it. When asked what sort of coffee it was, he would reply that it was Irish coffee.
Hudák prefers to use filtered coffee with a strong flavour profile and a good body.
“You need a stronger coffee, because once you add sugar and alcohol in it, it needs more flavour to come out. I use filtered coffee – espresso is not good for Irish coffee because of the crema (the foam that sits on the tops of espresso). So when you put the cream on top of it, it doesn’t look good,” he said.
“What you want to achieve in an Irish Coffee is a beautiful layer of light cream on top and black coffee. So, the cream is also very important. It cannot be too heavy or it will fall into the drink, and it can’t be too liquidy or it’ll mix with the coffee. It needs to be the right balance. Every country has different cream, and for my competition last year, I sourced cream from one single cow!”
As for the whiskey, Hudák prefers using Irish whiskey, as per the original recipe. “These days, you get bartenders experimenting by using other Scotch and even rum or cognac. Personally though, I prefer my Irish coffee with Irish whiskey,” he said.
Mixing espresso, vodka, coffee liqueur and sugar syrup, the espresso martini is a drink that was allegedly created by bartender Dick Bradsell in the late 1980s, when a female customer asked for something that would “Wake me up, and then (expletive) me up.”
Because the drink uses vodka, which is generally quite flavourless, Hudák reckons that the coffee and the coffee liqueur play even more important roles in this drink.
“You need a really good coffee for this drink. If you have one that is too bitter or with no flavour, then it wouldn’t be good either,” he said.
“A good coffee liqueur is also very important. The commercial ones tend to be too sweet, but these days you can get a lot of crafted coffee liqueurs made with specialty coffee beans.”
While it is an internationally-recognised classic coffee cocktail, Hudák thinks that the classic espresso martini is a little boring.
There’s nothing really exciting about the espresso martini. It’s just coffee and vodka and sugar. It’s like sugary coffee with vodka!” he said. “I respect the creator of the cocktail, but for me, it’s one-dimensional.”
Looking to introduce people to coffee cocktails with more dimensions of flavours, he came up with his own twist of an Espresso Martini called the Espresso Martiki.
“I wanted to take this classic drink and make it more modern. So I thought to myself, ‘What spirit has more flavour than vodka? Rum!’,” he said.
“Instead of normal sugar I use almond syrup to give it a more nutty flavour, a good shot of espresso, and pineapple juice to make it taste more tropical.”
Ultimately, Hudák just wants to change peoples’ mindsets about coffee cocktails being a sweet, dessert drink that is only drunk after dinner. “I want to spread the idea that coffee cocktails can be lighter and fresher too. You can use juices, or tonics to make it a longer drink … just do something different! I want to inspire bartenders and baristas out there to create more new coffee cocktails,” he concluded.