Espresso martinis have enjoyed an unexpected boost in status in recent months, despite their unpopularity with bartenders. They may be a hassle to make, but every generation has its unwisely caffeinated cocktail, and this seems to be Gen Z’s, at least here in New York. I’m not a fan myself, but I like to see people ordering them. They remind me of the cocktail menus I’d peek at as a child out to dinner with my family. Back then, the science of mixology was in its infancy. You didn’t see elaborately infused syrups or smoked herb garnishes in the average watering hole. There was only the martini, in its infinitely pervertible forms.
Are appletinis and espresso martinis and cosmopolitans really martinis because they’re served in that iconic glass? No, not really — they’re missing everything but the vodka, and a true martini purist would say even vodka is an inappropriate intervention on the classic drink. Still, I feel affectionate toward all these bastard children of the stodgy old martini. By the time I began drinking, they’d already fallen out of fashion, and I was too self-conscious to try to finally taste all those cocktails whose descriptions had been so tantalizing all those years ago. The pomegranate martini. The cran-appletini. Most enticing of all… the chocolate martini.
Chocolate martinis made a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it guest appearance on Showtime’s Yellowjackets, when Misty, the show’s resident delusional sociopath played by Christina Ricci, orders one in a restaurant while spying on her friend. On one episode of Below Deck, a particularly fussy customer orders about nine of them from the yacht’s bartender. Those are the only two times I can remember seeing them represented in the culture, even in the weird martini heyday of the 2000s. By that metric, chocolate martinis must have been some truly unpopular shit. But as a kid, I thought it sounded like the coolest thing. Chocolate? In a grown-ups drink? Slow down there, Willy Wonka!
Looking at the list of ingredients now — vodka, chocolate liqueur, Baileys and chocolate syrup to garnish — I can see why this isn’t anybody’s go-to order. Drink enough of them to get fucked up, and you’ll be in the hospital by morning. Still, I see the espresso martini joining the jet-set crowd, putting on airs and pretending she wasn’t slutting around crappy bars in the aughts like the rest of us, and I can’t help but feel ripped off. That could have been my friend, the chocolate martini.
But maybe it’s not too late. I decided to go to gross-out tourist trap Max Brenner — New York’s preeminent chocolate restaurant for children and weird adults — to taste a few variants on the chocotini, in the hopes of finding the next hot thing.
Round 1: Iconic White Chocolate Martini & Chocolate Old Fashioned
Iconic White Chocolate Martini Ingredients: Créme de cocoa [sic], vanilla vodka, milk and white chocolate, chocolate-and-hazelnut dipped strawberry
Chocolate Old Fashioned Ingredients: Bourbon, chocolate bitters, dark chocolate orange, cherry
“We don’t have to finish these, do we?” asked my long-suffering boyfriend, who had been under the impression that we were going out for a normal-tasting drink that didn’t involve my MEL column.
There was almost no alcohol taste in that chocolate martini, which was dangerous. It tasted like slightly astringent chocolate milk, with a chocolate coating inside the glass that you could gnaw on like a horse with a feed bag. The only other drink where I’ve had vanilla vodka is the Mr. Lethal at D.C.’s excellent Jimmy Valentine’s Lonely Hearts Club. When you order a Mr. Lethal, the bartender offers you an Advil; with an iconic chocolate martini, you get only the chocolate-covered strawberry for support. It’s a nice if uncomfortably erotic touch.
The Chocolate Old Fashioned was less successful — chocolate and orange are a timeless combination, but the chocolate here isn’t high-quality stuff, too sweet and cloying to stand up to the acidity of the orange. I’ve never had chocolate bitters before, and I’m not convinced I ever need to again. You’d think that bourbon and chocolate would get along like gangbusters, but the overall effect was pretty nauseating.
The boyfriend and I began to get cranky and sleepy halfway through this first round, the way you always do when you pair well liquor with too much sugar. And like your average glass of rotgut, this stuff had the enjoyable effect of nauseating us thoroughly before we’d drunk half the glass. Our server was lovely and solicitous, and seemed genuinely worried about us as we groaned.
“Maybe we’d feel better if we got some chocolate fondue,” I said, but it was $35, and anyway, no we wouldn’t.
Number of Drinks That Came with a Garnish of Erotically Chocolate-Dipped Fruit: 2
Amount of Erotic Chocolate Dipping That Got All Over My Face When My Boyfriend Tried to Sensually Feed Me My Strawberry: 100 percent
Number of Times My Boyfriend Held Up His Cocktail Glass with a Mad Men-Like Affect and Said, “My Name Is Mr. Big and I’m Going to Get Diabetes Tonight”: Innumerable
The Final Verdict: The Iconic Milk Chocolate Martini gets 6 out of 10 for taste, but an overall 4 out of 10 once I factor in how seasick my stomach felt after drinking all that sugar. The Chocolate Old Fashioned also gets a 4 out of 10. It didn’t taste good, but at least you get a nice slice of orange to munch on while you wait for death to set in.
Round 2: White Chocolate Russian & Iconic Dark Chocolate Martini
White Chocolate Russian Ingredients: Vodka, Kahlua, marshmallows, white chocolate
Iconic Dark Chocolate Martini Ingredients: All the same stuff as the last one but with dark chocolate instead of milk and white chocolate
By this point, the vibe at our table strongly recalled that of a kindergarten classroom just after the juice-box break. We realized that not only were we both drunk and nauseated, we were hyper, too. (And yes, I know the theory of the “sugar high” has been debunked. Bigfoot’s been debunked as well, but we both know he’s out there, and we both know it’s just plain bad for your temperament to knock back a glass of alcoholic Yoo-hoo in less than five minutes.)
The boyfriend and I briefly tussled over this round’s strawberry garnish, both so desperate to consume something that wasn’t sucrose that we were willing to fight over the fructose. It’s not important who won the tussle.
The taste of the dark chocolate martini was markedly better than that of the milk chocolate one — the chocolate coating on the glass was chalky and insipid with the milk chocolate one, but the dark chocolate version almost worked with the sharpness of the alcohol. In fact, the chocolate coating tasted exactly like the chocolate at Candy Kitchen. The chocolate there is chalky and insipid, too, but at least then you’ve been at the beach all day, so you don’t really know your way around your own taste buds anymore. As with the last round, there wasn’t even a hint of chocolate’s native bitterness. You’d think that’s the aspect of chocolate that a bartender would want to draw out the most in a chocolate cocktail, but in this preparation, it’s all about the sugar.
The White Chocolate Russian was an interesting animal, though. That little beaker of cum on the side was the white chocolate, which our server urged me to pour in to my heart’s content. I drunkenly emptied the beaker into the glass while my boyfriend (who doesn’t have nearly the sweet tooth I do) groaned some more. Swirling my White Chocolate Russian, I allowed myself to feel like bizarro Lebowski for a moment.
The drink was thinner and sweeter than the average white Russian, but it had a nice candy warmth to it — it really wasn’t bad! In fact, it was the least offensively sugary drink of the four, which was surprising considering the usual saccharine nature of white chocolate. Maybe the coffee in the Kahlua helped to counter that sugar-forward taste, or maybe my taste buds had just been blown out by the 150 grams of sugar I’d already consumed that hour.
The marshmallows were a mistake, though. They would’ve been good if they’d been toasted, but here they were just chubby, cloying interlopers.
Number of Marshmallows My Boyfriend Claimed to Be Saving for the End Before Finally Admitting That He Would Cry If He Had to Eat Any More Sugar and Would I Please Just Let Them Throw It Away: 1
Number of Napkins It Took to Cleanly Drink These Four Cocktails Without Staining Our Hands, Faces or Clothes: 8
Number of Napkins Required to Do This With Any Reasonable Cocktail: 0
The Final Verdict: The Iconic Dark Chocolate Martini deserves a 5 out of 10. It was better than the last variant, worse than most other existing drinks in the Western hemisphere. I’ll give the White Chocolate Russian a 6 out of 10. It would have been higher had they lost or toasted the marshmallows.
A Chocolate-Covered Coda
“We’re for sure going to be sick tonight,” I said as I paid my bill and stumbled with some difficulty onto the street.
“When you’re too drunk, you can eat something to absorb it,” the boyfriend pointed out, hazily shoulder-checking an NYU kid. “But what do you eat when you’re too sugar-drunk?”
I thought about it, then had an epiphany: “Salt!”
Espresso martinis, it turns out, are popular because they’re just Vodka Red Bulls in a frillier outfit. They look cuter in your hand, but perk you up just as much. It’s not a bad way to get drunk. Chocolate martinis, on the other hand, make you feel like you’re robo-tripping. They’re the speedball from hell. And by the way: We drank these things after eating a nutritious dinner (well, after eating pizza)!
It’s not like we’re novices, double-fisting sweet cocktails for dinner. I did everything I could to make this cocktail-tasting experience painless, and yet painless it most positively was not. So I suppose I’ll give up, grudgingly, on the dream of the chocolate martini. Whatever niche it fills doesn’t include me any more than that filled by the espresso martini does.
Maybe the appletini was the answer all along.