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Deep Dive: What Is a Red Eye?

Don't sleep on this one.

by Kayla Baird | February 26, 2021

Grab your wetsuits, we're taking a deep dive into some of our favorite café drinks. This time out, we’re going in on a coffee so strong, it's been known to cause an all-nighter.

Key facts

Definition: A drip coffee with a shot of espresso poured on top.

First known usage: The red eye started showing up as “shot in the dark” or “coffee with a shot” as word of mouth at local coffee shops in the United States, likely in the late '90s.

What is a red eye coffee?

Have you ever woken up, maybe after staying up a little too late or drinking a little too much the night before, and known that your regular drip coffee wasn’t going to fully wake you up? Or ridden cross-country and needed something high octane to get you through the drive, with as few stops as possible? To understand what a red eye is, it’s important to understand why the red eye is.

The red eye is named after a red-eye flight, which is famously a middle of the night flight from the west coast to New York City. The “red eye” flight is synonymous with the need to stay awake for the long haul from coast to coast. The red eye gets the job done with as few trips as possible, without spending time drinking multiple cups due to its added strength.

History of the red eye

First lauded as a secret menu hack at your local Starbucks, the red eye is now commonly ordered at coffee shops around the United States. Unlike most strong coffee beverages, the high octane red eye seems to have originated in the US, with regional variations depending on where you are in the country.

The infamous red eye has evolved into the working person’s drink — most commonly consumed on the go, when there’s a need to be awake and productive, but without the luxury of multiple cups of coffee. It’s the hot equivalent of cold brew.

How it’s made

The red eye is simple to make in a coffee shop setting: it’s simply brewed coffee topped with a shot of espresso. Most specialty coffee shops pull double shots, so this is usually a double shot of espresso.

What does it taste like?

I’ll admit, a red eye isn’t exactly something we taste in Barista 101, so I had to go out and try one for myself, for the first time. I had a 12-ounce red eye, without any milk or sugar. A lid was placed on my drink immediately after preparation, and I was ready to consume the red eye how it’s meant to be: on the go.

I was expecting the flavor to be overwhelmingly strong and bitter, but the sweetness of the normal drip coffee and bitterness of the espresso really went quite well together, while the flavors were intense — think, an Americano with body. My red eye coffee tasted exactly as it was meant to: strong.

The heavy weight of the oil slick of the espresso mixed with the body from the drip coffee, and everything was magnified in this strong coffee drink. I couldn't quite pick out individual flavors, but sweetness and acidity and bitterness were balanced in my strong cup of coffee — I could imagine any faults would be intensified due to the strength of the drink. Additionally, if I were to add sugar and milk, I would have to add more than usual for a regular coffee.

It gave me the jolt of cold brew, noticing the effects of caffeine really quickly, as my palms became sticky and my heart started racing. I felt stimulated and ready to accomplish my long to-do list.

Variations and similar drinks

Depending on where you are in the US, the red eye takes on a different variation or name. As a working barista in NYC, I’ve never heard anything other than “red eye,” but there are alternates depending where in the country you are.

West Coast: A "shot in the dark" is how you’ll be ordering a coffee with espresso shots in the Pacific Northwest and most of the West Coast.

Alaska: Likely a nod to the region’s oil industry, in Alaska a "sludge cup" is the alternate name for a red eye coffee drink.

Starbucks: Starbucks has its own variation, a "green eye". A green eye is three shots of espresso over drip coffee.

Coffee recommendations

To replicate the coffee with a shot that I had, use a coffee like Joe’s Burundi Kibingo and Joe’s The Waverly espresso. The citrus and earthiness of the Kibingo, combined with a syrupy body and citrus and nutty finish of The Waverly was reminiscent of a fruit and nut trail mix.

Making your own red eye recipe at home can be a great way to experience all the dynamic flavors an individual coffee has to offer. Metric's Honduras La Comunion's deep honey sweetness is complimented by candied melon and a refreshing green apple and tangerine acidity.

Another option: Passenger's El Guayabal Gesha. Lush and creamy, with a soft tropical acidity and lingering pomegranate and chocolate sweetness, this cup has fruity hot chocolate vibes.