Jarkko Issukka

4 Steps to Take Your Coffee Cocktail to the Next Level

Coffee and drinks have more in common than we think. Get inspired and next time mix your coffee with something else than milk, sugar or water.

Jarkko's  recipe of a great (coffee) coctail:
1. Play with tongue
2. Story gives your drink a soul
3. Make it multisensory
4. Favour the flavour

Read more from below!

As 3rd wave coffee culture has exploded globally in recent years, so has the drinks business. In fact, cocktails have been on top of the trend only two times in the human history. First ‘Golden age of cocktails’ was from the 1850’s to the start of the US prohibition in the early 1920’s. Second time cocktails became a major trend in the 1990’s, and after the new millennia it is accelerating like never before.

So basically, you’ve never had a better moment to enjoy a great cocktail. And for us coffee lovers, it’s even more interesting because our beloved brew is getting its share of the revolution. Cold brews, single origins and new more experimental booze barrel aged coffees popping into the game (check out also this recipe for Cold Brew Cocktail!). Are you ready to take the full potential out of your coffee drinks to boost your business or just to do it for the fun of it? If you ask an average Joe to describe what’s a cocktail, the most common answer is something like a Gin & Tonic or a rum with coke.

If you ask a bartender, the answer is a Whiskey Sour or an Old Fashioned (which is great made with cold brew btw). What if you ask it from the very best bars in your city? The answer is far more complicated: a cocktail is often seen as an experience with many factors that build the big picture and keep the customers coming back for more. What are these factors then? I’ve made a checklist for you how to get even more out of your drinks next time you mix coffee with something else than milk, sugar or water.     

1. Play with tongue

Before we start playing with a drink, the most essential thing is that the liquid in the glass is top-notch. Your booze, sour ingredients and sweet ingredients, from which most of the drinks are built, should be in balance with each other. That of course depends on whatever you prefer – more sour, sweet or boozy. Up to you!

Cocktail Coffee Ingredients

However, there is more into the flavour than just those three tastes. Our tongue recognizes also salt and bitter flavours, so why use salt only when cooking if it works the same way for drinks as well? But be careful that your drink doesn’t make your guest even thirstier! Right amount of salt in a drink is just a pinch that you cannot really taste. What it does, is quite a difference to the drinks deliciousness. If you don’t believe, try one drink with salt and another one without to compare.

For us coffee people, bitter is something we know really well. A bitter touch can be added to a drink with e.g. Campari or drops of Angostura. Or in our case – bitter coffee. Bitterness is essential to exist because it’s what makes our drink to taste longer on our tongue, more full-bodied and it’s what makes you to take the next sip faster!

In addition to these basic flavours we sense also umami, temperatures and textures. These ones can be also played with. Like you know from filter coffee, coffee is never most enjoyable when boiling hot, and same applies to drinks freezing cold. They might please on a sunny day, but to perceive flavour it’s not the right path.

If you want to enrich your drink with textures, fun option could be using sparkling sugar. Attach a spoon of sparkling sugar on top of your drink, separately of course. When your guests sip your fruity concoction and add the sugar to the mouth, they feel both cold and warm temperature and also smooth and hard textures. Not to mention the popping feel in the mouth which opens up fruity flavours. Easy and inexpensive trick to make your guest smile. Promise.

But why should we go through all these checkpoints? Why don’t we simply shortcut to only boozy, sweet and sour? Simply because world leading culinary researches agree on the fact that the more taste buds in the mouth you manage to stimulate, stronger is the impact and memory mark to your guest. Ever thought why Asian cuisine tastes so delightful? It does exactly the same – sour, sweet, salty, umami, bitter, cold, hot, smooth and texture all in the same package.

2. Story gives your drink a soul

Cocktail Coffee Beginning

Let’s think for a while classic drinks like Dry Martini or a Cosmopolitan. Won’t they make you think of James Bond in a fine suit or Sex in the City right away? Why are these classics still here and being ordered year after year?

One simply answer is that they most likely have an unforgettable story behind them about their creation, a person or whatever people like to tell forward. The story is probably attached into their name as well, and it makes the drink easy to remember. Story is a soul given for a drink to make it a cocktail. To make it an experience. Story is something that gives its imbiber a reason to tell about it to their friends and bring them back to your establishment!

Good example of a storied drink, which eventually became a local classic, was “Mummonkurkku” (Grandma’s Cucumber) at Helsinki’s American Bar I used to work for years back. This basic gin sour with a tweak of cucumber, vinegar and dill was just a refreshing drink and nothing too fancy until we named it after a traditional cuisine most of the Finns remember from their childhood. Everyone remembers their grandma making these pickled dill cucumbers, and when you link the story to the drink, it takes your guest back to this memory and it elevates the drink straight to the next level leaving your guest with goose bumps. Easy isn’t it?

When creating drinks out of coffee, why not going back to our coffee cultures and memories which are filled with stories!

3. Make it multisensory

Have you ever figured out why does bad coffee taste so good when you are next to the campfire on your holiday? Your surroundings influence your flavour more than you might think. This is especially important when you are aiming for an experience.

When you hit the woods and warm up your coffee by the fire, your senses are blown away by smoky aromas mixed with fresh, green notes of the woods and botanicals around you. Silence and the birds next to you makes you calm and you forget the stress of last week while raindrops fall down on your cheek. You are being influenced by the very best multisensory skills of mother earth.

Today if you hit a five stars hotel or a top-notch Michelin restaurant, all the things explained above have been transformed into a business. Aroma at the doorstep, feel of the paper you sign with quality pen given to you by receptionist and the correct, calming and cosy lightning in your room are not there because some designer thought they are cool. They are there because the hotel management wants to make you feel luxurious or the restaurant wants you to feel the way it fits to their agenda. This kind of visit is forming into an experience and it’s done all by multisensory aspect of it.

Cocktail Coffee Checklist

With the drinks and coffee this can be done as good as in any hotel – you just have to tick all of the following: how your glass looks like, how it feels like, what’s the temperature, what’s the sound and what’s the aroma in your bar. For example, we investigated some years ago that quick tempo music makes your guest drink faster and lowers the quality of flavour while smooth and calm music slows the pace down and improves the taste. Likewise, bright lightning makes your guest feel unsafe and having dark corners is a safe bet to keep your customer feeling safe and nice. There is one bar in Helsinki which has its bar menu weighting over two kilos just to communicate quality feel and so on. Multisensory is everything, and further we travel into the future, the more we will encounter its usage in the hospitality business.

Did you know that the more you add details, contrast and shapes into your drink, the more likely your guest will share it in social media and give you a free ad? Latte art is not just something cool to do, it’s also developing your business for good!

4. Favour the flavour

In the end, what your drink’s imbiber thinks is important is the flavour. Here you can go as crazy as you can. You can go easy and stick with coffee loving flavours such as vanilla, chocolate, orange and the rest you know from your syrup flavours, but if you really want to get fancy there are options more exciting too.

Did you know that you perceive flavours through your aroma centre in your brain? That’s why if you catch a flu, your flavour perception gets the hit first. Basically, you perceive aroma when you hold the liquid in your mouth. Aroma molecules from the liquid travel with your breath into your nose chamber and from there into the frontal globe of your brain where you recognize them. So it’s molecules. But now it gets tricky.

All the flavourful delights such as vanilla or orange are made of formula of aroma molecules. All the living things have these molecules in different order with different molecules. However, when ones get lots of same ones, they might taste completely different but still work together. Good example: a pig’s liver and orchid has almost identical aroma compounds. As you know without tasting, they taste completely opposite, but together they are match made in heaven. Cool, isn’t it?

Cocktail Coffee Flavour

There are couple of books and websites full of these combinations based on this physiology of flavour such as The Flavour Thesaurus or The Flavour Bible. I suggest to check them out when you’re planning to surprise your friends next time. With coffee, try these that might surprise you: saffron, sesame, tomato, mango, raspberry, strawberry, yoghurt and red wine.

Cocktail is a word described first time on May 13 in 1806 (May 13th is now known as the World Cocktail Day). Back then it was already described as a combination of booze, sugar, water and bitters. Today in our top bars and restaurants it gets even more complicated. When they knew how to make interesting drinks 200 years ago and again just now, why should we just stick with booze and a mixer! Let’s get crazy and think it as an experience, not just as a fuel. The same way we think of our precious third wave coffee.

Jarkko Issukka is a Roastery Ambassador for Robert Paulig Roastery. He is enthusiastic about drinks – both hot and cold. "I believe every small detail in our work should have a story to tell and every moment could be an experience."