Don't Knock the Parmesan Espresso Martini Before You Try It

It's actually a classic combination, if you think about it.

Learning how to balance the five elements of flavor — umami/salt, bitter, sweet, sour and spice — is one of the fundamental tenets of both cooking and mixology. For many cocktail lovers on Instagram, seeing a reel of a drinks influencer cheekily sprinkling microplaned parmesan cheese atop an Espresso Martini may seem like pure chaos, but it is, in fact, the opposite: It’s a quintessential example of umami from the cheese balancing the bitterness of coffee.

Despite the sticker shock one might feel about this combination, coffee and cheese historically do play well together –– think of  tiramisu, which calls for mascarpone and espresso, Scandinavian kaffeost, which features actual cubes of cheese in coffee, and even the American staple breakfast pairing of a bagel with cream cheese and coffee. 

To the average doom-scroller on social media, though, considerations about flavor aren’t usually top of mind. Instead, sprinkling cheese atop the caffeinated, classic cocktail has yielded a knee-jerk reaction from the majority of drinks lovers on Instagram, resulting in the viral drinks trend that’s just starting to pick up steam: the Parmesan Espresso Martini. 

Parmesan Espresso Martini

Miguel Buencamino

“The concept [of pairing coffee and cheese] goes back centuries,” explains Jonathan David Stanyard, a bar consultant at The Bitter Gringo Co., whose Instagram account has played a key role in the Parmesan Espresso Martini trend. “Throughout Latin America, people have long-enjoyed the classic combinations of Cafe con Queso and Chocolate con Queso, and I was reminded of this flavor combination while conversing with Carlos Ruiz. With this thought, I walked away from that conversation thinking that I could shave parmesan onto my Espresso Martini.”

Stanyard brought the idea of the parmesan Espresso Martini to cocktail influencer and commercial beverage photographer Jordan Hughes, and it was Hughes’ Instagram post that helped to catapult the unorthodox serve into the #drinkstagram mainstream, with the post garnering over 20,000 likes and 1.2 million views in just over a week. 

Unsurprisingly, the drink has its naysayers. Upon seeing the cocktail on Instagram, one follower commented, “Are you trolling?” Another one of Hughes’ skeptical commenters wrote, “Sounds absolutely disgusting, but I’d try it.” One scandalized person even went as far to comment “Stay away from me, devil preacher.” 

Despite the mixed reception, people are overwhelmingly curious about the comibation. “Bartenders and home enthusiasts alike have been sending me photos and videos of themselves trying it, or making an Espresso Martini with parmesan for guests at the bar,” says Hughes. “So far, it’s a pretty small minority of people who are disgusted by it after trying it. But the overall response overall is along the lines of: ‘Wow, this is so weird and fun and amazing, and I want another one.’” 

Within a month from Hughes’ initial post, other influencers, such as Miguel Buencamino, followed suit, posting about their experiences both making and enjoying the cocktail. “The absurdity of it piqued my interest at first,” says Buencamino, who simultaneously expresses his love of umami in cocktails, “but thinking about it a bit more, I realized the flavors may genuinely work, so I tried it out.” Buencamino's post garnered a further 1.3 million views with thousands of accounts engaging with his tongue-in-cheek review of the cocktail, spurring the trend on further into viral territory.  

As the cocktail continues making its rounds on the internet and in bars, Hughes insists that there are some simple guidelines to follow in order to actually make the unorthodox Espresso Martini genuinely delectable: having a dependable base recipe for the Espresso Martini, and quality cheese grated finely.

“Use an aged parmesan cheese — 24 months is excellent,” he says, noting that the dried fruit and savory characteristics add complexity when paired with the bittersweet coffee cocktail beneath it. Finely grating the parmesan with a microplane is key to getting it to seamlessly integrate into the crema atop the Espresso Martini.  If you use a grater that produces  larger shavings of cheese the drinker ends up needing to eaten — as opposed to drink — the umami element. 

“The cocktail sounds a lot weirder than it actually is, but that thin layer of finely grated parmesan genuinely complements the bitter coffee with a subtle savory and salty element,” says Hughes, who leaves curious imbibers with one parting tip. “Don’t go overboard with the parmesan though…your Espresso Martini is not a plate of pasta.”

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