Espresso martini boom delivers million-dollar growth for Kahlua

March 26, 2019
By Alana House

Coffee has been associated with cocktails since 1949 when the Black Russian was created using coffee liqueur and vodka.

The drink morphed into the Espresso Martini when legendary British barman Richard ‘Dick’ Bradsell added a shot of espresso in late 1980s.

More recently, the Espresso Martini has taken on legendary status Australia. According to IRI’s coffee culture viewpoint, data MAT 6/10/18, coffee flavoured glass spirits generated almost $50 million in sales delivering growth of just over $900,000 year on year.

Kahlua is the leading brand, generating $6 out of every $10 spent on coffee flavoured glass spirits, while also delivering over $1 million of growth year on year. 

Drinks Trade editor Melissa Parker talked to Kahlua’s first, and recently appointed, National Brand Ambassador, Ben Parton about the appeal of the caffeinated cocktail.

What’s driving the coffee cocktail trend?

There are several factors driving the current trend. We share a lot of moments over coffee. It’s a drink that brings people together. When someone comes over, the first thing you ask them is often offering them a coffee (or tea). 

We catch up over a coffee, we have meetings over coffee, we sit at the kitchen table together in the morning and have coffee. This isn’t the same for most drinks. You don’t call up a friend and say ‘shall we meet up for some Fanta?’ (Not knocking Fanta by any means. Love it.) 

Cocktails are similar. We go out for cocktails with friends and share moments and experiences bonding over them. There’s an underlying link of convivial occasion between coffee and cocktails. 

Another factor is the renaissance of baristas and bartenders plying their trade whilst striving to provide the best service, knowledge and product to their customers. Over the years both coffee culture and cocktail culture has become significantly more specialized with an exponential increase in product awareness, knowledge and choice from both consumers and trade. It’s not surprising that coffee cocktails are so popular right now. 

Having said that, coffee has had an underlying presence in cocktails for many generations. The Black Russian has been around since 1949 which is Kahlua and Vodka served on the rocks. Add a shot of espresso, shake and serve up and you’ve got an espresso martini!

How is Kahlua leveraging the synergy between cocktails and coffee?

Kahlua is the best of both coffee and alcohol worlds. It incorporates 100 percent arabica shade grown coffee which takes approximately 6 years to mature which is medium roasted, brewed and then blended with rum and vanilla. 

Kahlua lends itself to both ‘café’ centric drinks e.g. put it in your flat white or with your cold-brew and tonic, but also ‘cocktail’ centric drinks like your espresso martinis. It’s an extremely versatile liqueur.

How important is quality and partnerships with good coffee suppliers and roasters?

Very. Both for sustainability and flavour reasons. Sustainability is an issue that is continually a focus for Kahlua. We’re aiming to source 100% of our coffee from sustainable communities by 2022. For our espresso martinis on tap, available in over 100 on premise venues nationwide, we source organic sustainable cold brew from Kind Coffee Co. 

Flavour-wise, there’s a lot of complexity behind coffee and it’s important to know what product you’re getting. Not all coffee is the same. 

When you’re next having an espresso, take notice of what you’re tasting. Is it bright and acidic or rich and oily? If you’re mixing coffee into a cocktail do you want to use a more mellow cold brew or a more acidic shot of fresh espresso?

Researching ethical and well-regarded supplier and roaster is critical so you can find the right product for both your customers’ needs and the planet. 

Is the barista like the barman and is that why it works so well? 

They are very similar! Barista translates directly to Bartender. At the end of the day, they’re both critical roles in hospitality which obviously involve serving customers drinks however there a few key differences. A barista is likely to function better in the mornings, where as a bartender is likely to be comparatively more functional with a vitamin D deficiency. The roles aren’t mutually exclusive either. There is a lot of crossover between both. 

One of the reasons a cross-over in these roles works so well is due to the rise of cocktail culture and coffee culture. The people working these positions are striving to give the best service and product possible. There is a common dedication to their craft in both roles and that has a flow on effect to consumers. They find something they’re passionate about and it emanates. 

I wouldn’t call myself a barista, I’ve come from a bartending background, but I’ve worked alongside some great ones who have taught me about the nuances of coffee and what to look for. One was a state barista champion and the other works at a specialty roaster which frequently wins awards. Big ups Ian and Joe. I used to be of the mentality that all coffee was the same and drank International Roast on the regular (still do occasionally, not sorry), but they showed me that there was so much more to it. Mind you, even with all they’ve taught me I will still 100% tank a service if I’m put on the coffee machine when it’s busy, but at least I have an idea of what I’m talking about!

They say the trend is driven by the Millennials – is it the boost coffee can give you later into the night that is the attraction with coffee-based cocktails?

Taste and quality are really the main drivers, otherwise people still would be dumping shot glasses of various spirits into schooners full of energy drink and sinking them – an indication they aren’t made to savour. 

Having said that, the coffee boost is a benefit. You don’t go to a bar and order a chamomile tea and ask them to switch the music to Coldplay and have a nap. You order an espresso martini and party!

What activations or innovations are happening with Kahlua in this space?

Innovation-wise we’re rolling out Espresso Martini on Tap which is Kahlua, Absolut Vodka and Kind Coffee Co Cold Brew in a nitrogenated keg. It tastes bang on and is fantastic for venues that get slammed with espresso martini requests. Don’t get me wrong, I love making them, but with how popular they’ve become, we’ve come to the astute observation that bartenders don’t have eight hands to cope with the demand. This is a great alternative. 

Just before Christmas, we released a first of its kind in Australia, Kahlua Espresso Martini RTD – it’s an innovation in the Australian drinks market, as the can has been designed with a smart nitrogen widget. When you pop the can, the nitrogen is released, forcing the bubbles to the surface. Simply pour the can into a coupe and you have the prefect Kahlua Espresso Martini with the perfect crema. 

With the rise in ‘hometainment’, our consumers looking to recreate bar-standard cocktails at home, it was no surprise that this product almost broke the internet upon release! 

And you should get ready to see a lot more activations rolling out; I am the first National Kahlua Ambassador (a.k.a Ambassador of Fun!) and that’s what it’s all about. Having fun! Sometimes we get lost in the nitty gritty behind beverages and take ourselves too seriously. Sometimes we analyse drinks more than we take time enjoy them. They’re just drinks at the end of the day, have fun with them and enjoy the convivial moments!

I will be tasked with boosting Kahlua and fun in the on-premise – keep your eyes peeled! 

Read more about “The Espresso Martini and the Caffeinated Cocktail Revolution” in the March/April issue of Drinks Trade, out now! Click here to read the digital edition

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