As delicious as espresso can be, its intense and concentrated flavour is not for everyone. Likewise, tonic water, with its powerful astringency, can be just as polarising.
Enter the espresso tonic: a beverage that combines both. However, rather than becoming twice as overbearing as its component parts, this drink can be perfectly balanced when prepared correctly. In the past few years, many have come to appreciate its unique and refreshing taste.
To learn more, I spoke with Anne Lunell of Koppi Roasters and Jonathan Riethmaier of Mammoth Espresso. Read on to find out what they told me about espresso tonic’s origins, preparation, and popularity.
You might also like our list of six summer coffee cocktails you can make at home.
The origin of the espresso tonic
It’s believed that barista competitors had been experimenting with tonic water and espresso as early as 2015. This is because many competitions’ “signature drink” categories often require a unique creative edge. However, the drink’s emergence on the world stage is more widely attributed to Koppi Roasters in Helsingborg, Sweden.
Anne Lunell is a former Swedish Barista Champion and Swedish Brewers Cup Champion. She co-founded Koppi Roasters back in 2007. However, it was when she was working at a coffee shop in Oslo that she first came across the idea of an espresso tonic.
“One hot summer day, one of our colleagues made a drink with tonic, espresso, and something strange, like pistachios,” Anne says. “We felt it was super refreshing and so different from all the iced drinks you would normally get, which were mainly milk drinks.
“We used to do strange coffee drinks after work when we were closing, and it was one of the few that actually tasted really good.”
A few months later, Anne opened Koppi Roasters. She knew they needed the espresso tonic on the menu, and says the beverage quickly caught people’s attention.
“What made it popular across the globe was that we had some journalists visit from some big newspaper like the New York Times or the Observer,” Anne says. “A lot of people wrote about it, and now it’s all over the place.”
Jonathan Riethmaier is the owner and barista at Mammoth Espresso in New Orleans, Louisiana. He became a fan of the beverage while visiting family in San Francisco, where the espresso tonic first appeared in the US.
He says: “I don’t know when I first caught wind of the espresso tonic, but I can tell you where I had my first good one: Saint Frank Coffee.
“It was served in a highball glass. It wasn’t this foamy thing, it was elegant with a really nice presentation. I thought it was really refreshing and I thought it was going to become a staple.”
What makes a good espresso tonic?
The espresso tonic is simple enough to prepare. However, there are many types of tonic, and many different origins, roast profiles, and processing methods to choose from for espresso. Understandably, the quality of the two ingredients have a significant impact on the flavour of the final beverage.
Anne’s preferred tonic is Fever Tree’s Mediterranean flavour. She says the citrusy, bright flavours pair well with the beans she likes to use for espresso.
“My preferred espresso style would be anything that’s fruity, like Ethiopian and Kenyan coffees,” she says. “I also like Colombian coffees that are brighter and more acidic.
“Anything that has a nice acidity and isn’t too heavy.”
Jonathan, however, uses Fentimans Tonic. Like Anne, he started with a fruity, citrusy Ethiopian coffee, and found it worked well with the strong citrus flavour of the Fentimans.
Down the line, however, Jonathan switched to a more versatile recipe, preparing the beverage with a house blend coffee.
He says: “[It] is usually a Colombian and Ethiopian blend that is meant to work well mixed or as a standalone.
“The blend has orange, raspberry, and dark chocolate notes. But Fentimans was too aggressive for that, so we switched to Fever Tree.”
Preparing the drink
Equally as important as the ingredients, Anne says, is how you combine them. She says that one of the main issues with the beverage at coffee shops is that it isn’t served with enough ice. This, she says, stops it from being exceptionally refreshing.
She says: “What is key is that you fill it with ice, then almost to the top with tonic, and only then add the espresso.”
Jonathan agrees that it needs plenty of ice, but he says that espresso and carbonated tonic can be a volatile, messy combination if you’re not careful.
He says: “You need to give it as much time as you can to settle. That gives you a moment to prep and pull your shot.
“When you add your espresso, the key element is not to dump it onto the tonic water, because the mixture will be super effervescent and will flow all over the counter creating a sticky mess.”
Jonathan’s preferred method is to pour from a spouted pitcher directly onto a ball spoon, which is held above the surface of the tonic. This way, he says, the impact is very gentle.
“Not only does it eliminate those excess bubbles, but it will allow the drink to layer on top of the tonic water, meaning, for some time at least, you have a compelling visual story to complement the drink,” he says.
Do it yourself
If you want to try the espresso tonic at home, here is a recipe to get you started:
- 200ml tonic
- 30 to 40ml espresso shot
- Slice of lemon (optional)
- Fill a standard lowball glass (8 fl. oz or 227ml) with cubed ice and tonic, almost to the top of the glass
- Pull your espresso shot
- Slowly pour espresso over the tonic; be careful not to pour too quickly
- Serve and enjoy
The refreshing nature and simplicity of the espresso tonic makes it a great drink to add to your menu, especially during the summer months.
“If you can make a beautiful espresso tonic, and you have a line of people, you will end up making four or five because it draws people in,” Jonathan says. “It’s intriguing. It adds a bit of flair to your coffee shop.”
Jonathan says that his mocktail menu at Mammoth draws inspiration from New Orleans’ cocktail bars. He notes that for coffee shop cocktails, presentation should be almost as important as the quality of the beverage itself.
“For our signature menu, we wanted to present our drinks just like a good cocktail bartender would present them,” he says. “We wanted a similar style of service and we wanted the barware and technique you would see in a New Orleans cocktail bar.
“We wanted to borrow from that credibility and that craftsmanship you have in the New Orleans cocktail community, and put that in our coffee shop.”
Jonathan says that the biggest thing he learned from craft cocktail bars is that it’s not just a drink – it’s an experience. If prepared and presented well, the espresso tonic can give a coffee shop’s beverage menu something that helps them stand out.
Jonathan also notes that unlike many other seasonal beverages, it’s really quick to prepare. Jonathan says that once you get used to it, it can be made just as quickly as an iced latte.
Do people actually like it?
Anne says: “Around 95% of people who tried it liked it… the other 5% thought it was too weird. We have it all year round, simply because people asked for it all year round.”
For the most part, Jonathan says, people love it in his shop as well. The typically warm New Orleans climate means the beverage is a Mammoth Espresso staple, rather than just a seasonal menu item.
He also tells me that if a customer is not sure about the drink, it’s just a matter of asking a few questions.
He says: “There are two pretty easy screener questions: do you like espresso? Do you like tonic water? If the answer to either of those questions is ‘no’ or ‘I’m not sure’, then it may not be a good drink for you.”
Though it is not for everyone, the espresso tonic has been on coffee shop menus around the world since 2007, and is still attracting new fans to this day.
If made well, it can be one of the most refreshing cold coffee beverages out there. In a world where consumer wellbeing and iced coffee both becoming more prominent, it’s likely it will continue to catch people’s attention.
Enjoyed this? Then you’ll like this article on adding coffee cocktails to your coffee shop menu.
Photo credits: Mammoth Espresso, Dominic Vittitow
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