A Whiskey-Based Answer to the Espresso Martini (2024)

Coffee and whiskey are a beloved combination—just ask anyone who’s fortified themself with a stiff Irish coffee at brunch. But for a nighttime pick-me-up with a caffeinated punch, consider the classic Revolver co*cktail. This whiskey-based answer to the espresso martini is perfect for those who skip vodka. Delicious and easy to make, it’s served in bars from Sydney to Chicago. Best of all, those with well-stocked bars likely already have all the ingredients to make a stellar one.

What Is the Revolver co*cktail and Why Is It Popular?

Invented in 2003 by bartender Jon Santer at Bruno’s, a jazz club in San Francisco’s Mission District, the Revolver co*cktail is a simple, chilled marriage of whiskey or bourbon, coffee liqueur and orange bitters. It is beloved by bartenders and homebodies alike because it’s simple enough to make at home, but fun enough to order out at a bar.

It became internationally popular a few years after its invention, after Santer brought the co*cktail with him to San Francisco speakeasy Bourbon & Branch. A 2007 Wall Street Journal article about speakeasies mentioned the Revolver co*cktail as “a house special with the simplicity one finds in the best co*cktails.” People loved it (though Santer’s fellow bartenders complained to him that they were burning their hands from flaming dozens of orange discs for Revolvers every night). Soon after, the drink started showing up on bar menus from Austria to New Zealand. “Around 2008, 2009, people started sending me pictures of menus from all over the world with the Revolver on there,” Santer says.

A Whiskey-Based Answer to the Espresso Martini (1)

What’s the History of the Revolver co*cktail?

The origin story of the Revolver involves a perfect storm of historical events. A higher-rye bourbon had just debuted, and Santer’s boss purchased an entire case of it. No one was ordering it by name, because no one had ever heard of it. Not knowing what else to do with it, Santer started experimenting since, "the spirit was one of the first high-rye bourbons we got, making it dryer and more modifiable,” Santer says.

The 2000s didn’t offer much in the way of artisanal co*cktails, nor was the decade friendly to drinkers with a drier palate. At the time, Bruno’s was mostly selling whiskey sodas, light beer, and sweet co*cktails like mango mojitos and lychee and pineapple-infused martinis. Santer craved something different: a co*cktail inspired by the classics, without the use of fussy bespoke syrups.

“I wanted to create a drink from readily available materials that anyone with a little bit of skill could make,” Santer says. “If a drink is going to catch hold worldwide, other people need to be able to make it with the stuff they probably have on hand.”

In a riff on a Manhattan, Santer swapped in coffee liqueur for sweet vermouth, inspired by a friend who added creme de cacao to his Manhattans. Back then, there were only 2 coffee liqueurs that were readily available. He chose the one known for its spicy, rum-forward flavor. Instead of aromatic bitters, he used orange bitters, which he says were unusual enough at the time that they served as a “co*cktail geek secret handshake.” Santer would ride his motorcycle down to the one store that carried orange bitters in San Francisco at the time—snag a few bottles and stock the bar with them.

Those bitters made the co*cktail special enough that the Revolver co*cktail was worth ordering out, but replicable if any co*cktail geek wanted to grab a bottle themself.

The most complicated part of the co*cktail is the flamed orange disc garnish; it layers the intensity of orange and completes the drink’s aromatic profile. “Orange flavors work best when they’re stacked on top of each other, like how tomato sauce and tomato paste work together, so I did orange bitters and orange garnish.” Because it’s flamed, the orange garnish gives off a smoky scent that partially lends the Revolver its name (think: gunsmoke).

New Spirits, New Riffs

The three-ingredient recipe is rife for experimentation. Santer himself now makes the co*cktail mostly with a strong rye whiskey that’s 100 proof or higher, rather than a high-rye bourbon. But he also recommends playing around with a 100-proof conventional whiskey or with other high-rye bourbons.

How to Make the Revolver co*cktail

Recipe courtesy of Jon Santer

Note: If you’d like to batch this recipe up for four drinks, batch only the whiskey and coffee liqueur. Add the bitters when you’re ready to stir. “Bitters bloom in batches,” Santer says. “The longer they sit, the more bitter they become. Eight dashes takes two seconds and is simple, so there’s no reason to do it ahead of time.”

Ingredients

  • 2 ounces whiskey

  • 1/2 ounce coffee liqueur

  • 2 dashes orange bitters

  • Flamed orange disc to garnish

Instructions

Add at least 6 cubes of ice to a mixing glass and add the bourbon, coffee liqueur and orange bitters. Stir for at least 30 seconds, until chilled. Strain into a chilled coupe or Nick and Nora glass. For the garnish, you’ll need an orange and a wooden match. Cut a circular piece of peel off the side of an orange with a paring knife, about one inch around. (Valencia oranges usually have a good amount of oil in the peel). Light a wooden match. (Don’t use a cardboard match, a lighter or a torch. Santer says the wooden match provides a cleaner flavor to the orange flaming due to its natural material.) With the peel side toward the flame, squeeze the two opposite sides of the disk together so the disk becomes convex, peel side out (If the orange disk were a taco the peel side would be the outside, the white pith the inside). This is how you will express the orange oils from the disk, through the flame over the top of the co*cktail. Drop the disc in the co*cktail or discard.

A Whiskey-Based Answer to the Espresso Martini (2024)
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