Tenth Helpings is a humor column from our culture critic, Ella Quittner, illustrated by Olivia de Recat.
“There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of an ether binge.” —Hunter S. Thompson, who died 13 years before the advent of canned hard coffee
By around 1 a.m., I had peeled all of the polish off of my toenails. I stacked each slice of dried, glittery, silver gel on the surface of my desk, one atop the other. It looked like a demented Heatherwick statue. I admired it. Then I called my dad: “Do you think Big Spinach is trying to screw us?” I asked, or shrieked. “The leaves, they just get so small in the pan.”
I could hear him roll over in bed. “Are you weeping?” he asked.
Maybe I was. I lofted an empty can of spiked coffee (my sixth of the day) across my apartment and into the recycling bin. “YES! YES YES, YES,” I said. “Actually, I don’t know. Look, I gotta go,” I said, and hung up.
I was 36 hours into an alcohol-coffee-drink binge, and I had one more drink to go before I could call it quits and lay in bed, bug-eyed, contemplating the spinach thing until daybreak.
Why was I putting myself through this? Call it my effort to understand the worst minds of my generation, even if it would cause me to lose my own. Because, as you’ve probably heard by now, the espresso martini is back. Only now, satanically, it comes in a can.
In the last two years alone, fistfuls of entrants have stormed the alcoholic-coffee citadel, from a beachy-looking cannikin sold by liqueur giant Kahlúa, to a La Colombe-MillerCoors lovechild. There’s one that purports to taste like Horchata (it doesn’t), and there’s one that’s a terrifying 15 percent ABV. There’s even one whose package promises a “crema” of “nitro foam.”
But the latest entrant is the one that got caffeinated alcoholists frothing like a radioactive Nespresso steamer: the “Loverboy Espresso Martini.” Within 24 minutes of its launch on April 8, it had raked in $100,000. Four days later, the canned martini had completely sold out.
“It never even hit shelves,” Kyle Cooke, 38, told me. Cooke is one-half of the celebrity duo behind the Loverboy canned cocktail company. The other half is Amanda Batula, about whom Cooke once famously proclaimed on live television, “Summer should be fun! Amanda? Not fun.” They’re slated to be married this fall.
Cooke, the bleach-blonde, perpetually suntanned star of Bravo’s Summer House, said he and Batula first noticed a shift in drinking habits among their peers during the summer of 2019. “It went from everyone ordering an aperol spritz, to everyone ordering an espresso martini. We’d go around the table: ‘I’ll have one, I’ll have one, anyone who doesn’t want one?’ Then [fellow Summer House star] Luke would be like, ‘I’ll have a Coors Light,’ and we’d be like, ‘Boo.’”
They got to work engineering their own version of the espresso martini, which took some two dozen attempts. “It was how an artist feels when making their song—is it ever finished? You can always add a little more snare,” says Cooke. Finally, they found just the right level of snare, and got to canning.
These days, the stuff is still harder to come by than a post-pandemic interaction that doesn’t induce hours and hours of social anxiety.
Ah, but I am nothing if not a hard-nosed, never take “we’re-all-outta-Loverboy, honey” for-an-answer person. (I once gained 10 pounds in one day, through sheer force of will!) OK, OK, true, I didn’t get the Loverboy—my can’s in the mail, Cooke’s PR rep has assured me—but I did procure five of the other top canned coffee-alcohol drinks, and I drank them. A lot. Over and over and over. For science, and for you.
I compared ABVs and can designs. I analyzed flavors, sweetness levels, and kept increasingly illegible notes about which products made good on their promises, and which turned out to be buzzkills. At one point, I threw up a little, because I was incredibly full and someone on a podcast kept using the word “creamy.”
Here are my findings.
5. Bomani Cold Buzz
The flavor of Bomani Cold Buzz is somewhat shocking if, like me, you’ve spent the previous few minutes with your nose hovering just above it. The first sip went down like I’d time traveled back to my freshman year dorm room and poured a little acetone into one of the long-forgotten Starbucks cups, sweating it out on my desk: watery, distant, and a bit bitter.
A friend whose living room I wedged myself into midway through my binge aptly called Bomani Cold Buzz “the light beer of canned spiked coffee.” He said it was the kind of beverage he’d serve to any filler guests he invited to a house party rather than “waste the good stuff.”
Once my mouth became unbearably fuzzy, I tipped the rest into a cup of hot coffee, and enjoyed the results.
- Can Design Makes Me Feel Like: I accidentally agreed to attend a peripheral friend’s Bachelor party in Tulum, and also that peripheral friend is Batman.
- Promises Made: “Zero sugar, zero carbs”; that elusive 5.7% ABV.
- Bouquet: Like a warm coffee shop on a cold day.
- Sweetness Balance: 7/10. Not overly sweet, but not overly anything.
- Overall: 3.5/10 in some respects (flavor, enjoyability), 6.5/10 in other respects (you could probably chug four in a row with relative ease if you were about to attend an unpleasant daytime engagement).
Best For: Someone who loves a vodka tonic or weak iced coffee.
Yearbook Superlative: Technically Not Water
4. Kahlúa Espresso-Style Martini
The Kahlúa Espresso-Style Martini shuddered like a small rocket launching when I flipped open its tab, which would presumably become the source of its widely advertised “nitro foam.” I made a note to ask a scientist about this, then never did.
The foam was, disappointingly, no thicker than the scum atop an undisturbed pond, and it dissipated almost as quickly as it formed, leaving the lady on a canned beverage bender to wonder whether it was ever there to begin with.
The Espresso-Style Martini itself had the viscosity of sweetened cold brew or a flat Diet Coke, and offered strong notes of green grape. Just kidding, it tasted exactly like Kahlúa! The advantage of such impregnable flavor was that it masked any trace of vodka. The disadvantage was that it was barely potable, with sweetness levels at a fever pitch.
- Can Design Makes Me Feel Like: I discovered the snack bar on a beach and went hard.
- Promises Made: 4.5% ABV; a “crema” of “smooth nitro foam.”
- Bouquet: Rum and mysteries.
- Sweetness Balance: 3/10. Made my teeth hurt a little.
- Overall: 6/10.
Best For: My sister Clem, who has an insatiable sweet tooth.
Yearbook Superlative: Most Likely to Succeed (At Improving Your Otherwise 0% ABV Cup of Coffee)
3. Cutwater Spirits Horchata Cold Brew Cocktail
I would rather drink Horchata than almost any other drink, so I had high hopes. While this canned cocktail did not deliver on that front, it did proffer a few pleasant surprises. It was milky but not overwhelmingly thick, and once I added a pinch of salt, it tasted like an egg cream. While the cocktail did have a bit of a chemical-y aftertaste, if someone handed me one at a party, I would hold on to it for three or four songs.
- Can Design Makes Me Feel Like: I just put six dollars and seventy five cents in quarters into an airport vending machine, and my ticket stub reads DESTINATION: THE MOON, BABY.
- Promises Made: 12.5% ABV, gluten free (LOL), “ready to enjoy.”
- Bouquet: Notes of bottled Starbucks Frappuccino.
- Sweetness Balance: 6.5/10. Three hairs too sweet.
- Overall: 7/10.
Best For: Anyone chasing that “study abroad” sweetness and a high ABV, and who demurs at a thicker bev. Yearbook Superlative: Most Likely to Be Forgotten By the Five-Year Reunion
2. Beagans 1806 Coffee & Cream
Beagans 1806 Coffee & Cream smelled like a cake, looked like eggnog, and tasted like a melted milkshake. It had undeniable White Russian vibes. Could I consume more than one-half of a Beagans in one sitting? Not without getting very sweaty. Where was I going with this?
This tiny can contained almost no coffee flavor, but it made up for that with a creamy butteriness enhanced by a big pinch of salt. I would happily fall asleep drinking one after swearing to my spouse that we could watch a movie of his choice.
- Can Design Makes Me Feel Like: I am a giant who is about to get very drunk.
- Promises Made: 15% ABV!!!!!!!!; both “liqueur” and vodka.
- Bouquet: Pecan pie, funfetti, excitement.
- Sweetness Balance: Nonexistent? But in an unhinged, good way.
- Overall: 8/10.
Best For: The Dude.
Yearbook Superlative: Best All-Around Personality
1. Pabst Blue Ribbon Hard Coffee
Pabst Blue Ribbon Hard Coffee presents like vanilla-flavored cream, with a faintly yeasty aftertaste reminiscent of Parmalat boxed milk. In other words, it’s delicious, at least for the first ten sips. PBR has given the product the catchphrase, “Hey it’s Friday. Wait—it’s Wednesday,” which somehow feels meaningful, even if I will never know why.
One friend said it tasted just like Nescafé, and another called it, “Hey Ella, are you thinking about heading home soon, you don’t look so good.”
- Can Design Makes Me Feel Like: I won an award just for being me!
- Promises Made: 5% ABV, no other promises.
- Bouquet: Heavy cream and vanilla extract.
- Sweetness Balance: 8/10.
- Overall: 9/10.
Best For: Most situations in which you’d be drinking a canned coffee-alcohol beverage. Yearbook Superlative: The One That Didn’t Make Me Want to Die
In conclusion, I will have to take three Advil every six hours for the rest of my life.
After my initial recovery period, I reached out to Becky Hughes, a staff editor at The New York Times who recently reported on the espresso martini phenomenon. She attributes its comeback to a more widespread societal nostalgia for the ‘90s, coupled with promotion of the cocktail from celebrities like Cooke and Batula.
Only a few days had passed since my foray into the latest beverage trend, but, still twitching a bit, I had to know: What’s up next?
“I was at Bernie’s the other night, sitting at the bar. Someone ordered a Cosmo and it came out, and I had a Pavlovian response,” she told me. “I’ve had a lot of conversations lately about whether the Cosmo is coming back, and many people I’ve spoken to say, ‘Yes, indeed.’”
Just, please, god, don’t let it be canned.
On The Docket: What To Read, Watch & Listen To
- I can’t wait to make Food52 resident Hana Asbrink’s Caramelized Kimchi Patty Melt! Whew, just had to get that off of my chest.
- Here’s a lede for the ages: “Canned tuna is high in protein, low in fat and by far the most popular shelf-stable seafood in the United States. It can also be mysterious, questionable and scandalous.” More from Julia Carmel in “The Big Tuna Sandwich Mystery.” (No relation to The Great Layer Cake Mystery
- In chicken news, I can’t stop thinking about “Thighstop,” the name for Wingstop’s “virtual restaurant” peddling thigh.
- I’ve been making no-knead bread for a decade with no sense of its history beyond Jim Lahey, until I read Dayna Evans’ “The Women Erased From the Story of No-Knead Bread.”
- Tejal Rao just published a list of exciting new (and less new) dining options in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, and I’m working my way through it with considerable speed.
- The Bachelor franchise is not about food (unless you count that everyone talks about how the contestants are never caught eating on screen), but even so, this piece from Rachel Lindsay is way worth a read.
As usual, I have been spending most days thinking about french fries and very little else. Conveniently, G. Daniela Galarza recently published a dispatch on cold-frying the little guys, aka adding sliced raw potatoes to a Dutch oven with room temperature oil and bringing the whole thing to 325 degrees together. Have you cold fried your potatoes? Any findings? Let me know in the comments—I’m thinking about tackling fries for an upcoming Absolute Best Tests.
I also recently visited The Boise Fry Company in Idaho for “research,” but also because a man named Jason at the Hertz counter told me I should, and I didn’t have the energy to Google alternatives. There, I was presented with a thrilling choice of potato type (I went with russet, gold, and red) and cut (regular for me, coach). But the real excitement came after the hot little bowl of fries was handed over the counter, and someone nodded in the direction of the salt bar (!!!). In addition to the expected options—black pepper, sea salt—it was there that I first dabbled in Jalapeño salt on my french fries. (Troublingly, there was also a salt container labelled “vanilla,” which I swore to sample on my next visit.) Behold my spoils.