Black coffee has been my go-to ever since I worked the night shift at a CVS one summer during high school. The floaty head-rush, brought about by the combination of low blood sugar and a large dark roast from Dunkin Donuts, had me hooked. I’ve remained a purist — more for simplicity than snobbery. I don’t use sugar, can count on one hand the number of times I’ve added milk, and will never understand flavored syrups. I like iced coffee, but I’m not picky: cold brew’s okay; nitro’s lost on me.
My devotion to black coffee wavered two years ago when, on a whim and out of curiosity, I ordered an espresso tonic at El Rey, a self-described coffee shop and luncheonette in New York’s Lower East Side that lends itself to slow mornings. I was presented with a highball glass with a shot of espresso, muddled shiso leaves and a squeeze of lemon, all topped with tonic water. Though simple in composition, the drink was transformative in that it presented coffee in a new light. Its effect was equivalent to that of a pre-dinner drink: refreshing, relaxing, somehow revitalizing. It wasn’t coffee for the sake of caffeine; the priority was flavor, enjoyment.
Diluting espresso with effervescent tonic cuts the coffee’s bitterness and draws other flavors to the fore, not unlike adding water to whiskey. It’s best savored — not dissected into oblivion, but sipped slowly alongside a newspaper and sit-down breakfast. For hurried mornings when ease matters most, ordinary black coffee is still wholly satisfying. An espresso tonic just satisfies a different indulgence.
1 shot of espresso
6–8 ounces tonic water
1 lemon slice (optional)
3 mint leaves (optional)
2 luxardo cherries (optional)
1. Fill a highball glass with ice. Pour a freshly pulled shot of espresso into the glass.
3. Optional: Squeeze in lemon juice to enhance citrusy notes, garnish with mint leaves for brighter flavors, or toss in luxardo cherries for a nutty sweetness.