Taste: Spirits: The Half-Caf No-Foam Nonfat Martini?
Coffee, chai and chocolate make the move from Starbucks staples to cocktail shakers.
Sweet, creamy drinks are a blast from the distant past. Minty Grasshoppers and fluffy Pink Ladies were fashionable in post-war cocktail culture. Coffee-flavored liqueurs Kahlúa and Tia Maria were stylish in the ’70s and ’80s, but became punch lines in the ’90s. (See the merciless lampooning of the White Russian in the cult-classic Coen brothers film The Big Lebowski.)
Enter Starbucks, which did more than harness our fascination with caffeine. When Starbucks took coffeehouses out of the exclusive purview of arty neighborhoods and college campuses, the now-ubiquitous chain made it okay to have a sweet tooth again. Before long, bankers and truck drivers alike were ordering mocha frappucinos and pumpkin spice lattes with straight faces.
It was only a matter of time before those coffeehouse flavors — coffee, chai tea and chocolate — and candied, caffeinated preparations surged onto the cocktail scene. Yes, steakhouses like the Capital Grille on Broad Street and Fleming’s in Radnor are still shaking up martinis — but martinis made with fresh-brewed espresso instead of gin, blurring the line between bartender and barista.
There’s liqueur-spiked coffee at Mixto on Pine Street, where Baileys’ new caramel spin-off caters to the caramel macchiato crowd, and there’s coffee-spiked liqueur at Xochitl on Headhouse Square, where Patron X.O. Café perks up the Alejandro, a clever horchata spin on the Brandy Alexander, a flashback to the Nixon era. Luxe chocolatier Godiva has launched premium chocolate liqueurs that are decadent staples in modern chocolate martinis at Ardmore’s Plate and Rouge on Rittenhouse Square. Starbucks has, of course, gotten into the action with its own coffee-and-cream liqueurs, made with Starbucks coffee on a rum base. And even Kahlúa has seen a resurgence with Kahlúa Especial, a stronger and less sweet coffee liqueur. Welcome back, White Russian.
But it’s the chai craze that has imaginative bartenders working overtime on concoctions like the chai-and-pomegranate-scented Midnight Cosmo at the Walnut Room in Center City. As for the secret ingredient in the yummy pumpkin pie martini at Fairmount’s London Grill? It’s not the spicy tea you can find at your corner coffee shop, but new Voyant Chai Cream liqueur.
Old may consult for some of the businesses she writes about.