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Deep Dive: What Is an Espresso Tonic?

Only two ingredients, call that Scandi minimalism.

by Ever Meister | December 22, 2021

Grab your wetsuits, we’re taking a deep dive into some of our favorite café drinks. This time out, we’re familiarizing you with the espresso tonic, a specialty drink that’s risen in popularity over the past few years.

Key facts

Definition: A beverage comprising a base of tonic water over ice, onto which chilled espresso is added.

First known usage: 2007 in Oslo, then introduced more widely by Koppi Roasters in Helsingborg, Sweden; popularized in the United States in the mid-2010s by barista competitors.

Synonyms: Coffee Tonic, Kaffe & Tonic

What is an espresso tonic?

Like some of the simplest (and most perfect) cocktails — gin and tonic, whiskey and soda, rum and Coke — the espresso tonic is exactly what it sounds like: Espresso mixed with tonic water to make an effervescent, sweet-and-bitter beverage that is almost endlessly customizable and easy to drink year round.

Typically served in a highball glass over ice, the espresso tonic is often a layered drink, with the espresso resting on top of the tonic and slowly trickling through to fully incorporate. It can also be combined by gently stirring, but the carbonation in the tonic can result in a mess if agitated too vigorously.

The coffee-to-tonic ratio may vary, but most common versions feature 6–8 ounces of tonic water topped with 2 ounces (a double shot) of freshly brewed espresso. Additional flavorings such as a syrup or fruit juice may also be added, and the drink may or may not feature a garnish.

History of the espresso tonic

It should come as no surprise that this inventive drink comes from Scandinavia, one of the envelope-pushing regions of the coffee-drinking world: It is said that the drink was originally mixed in Oslo in 2007 by a barista colleague of Anne Lunell and Charles Nystrand. The pair went on to found Koppi Roasters in Helsingborg, Sweden, later that year, putting the Kaffe & Tonic on the menu there.

It gained in popularity at Koppi and spread throughout the region, eventually winding up on United States shores by way of barista competitions. By 2014, the refreshing, off-beat combination of single-origin espresso and tonic water was gaining ground in cafés in New York City, San Francisco, New Orleans, and more.

How it’s made

Originally comprising espresso, tonic, and a dash of syrup, the drink can have endless variations, including garnish, presentation, and even flavored ice.

The only required ingredients for an espresso tonic are tonic water and coffee, making it an accessible signature beverage that can be added to any café menu. Many shops prefer to let the coffee sing for itself, selecting a single-origin espresso that can contribute floral, herbal, or fruity notes to the sweet-and-bitter tonic. Others use the blank slate to get creative with syrups, bitters, special garnishes, flavored tonic water, edible flowers, infused or shaped ice, and even more.

Perhaps the most important things to remember are that espresso tonic is best served cold, so using plenty of ice for the tonic itself is key, as is chilling the espresso slightly before adding it. Because the tonic’s flavor will be an up-front component of the profile, it is worth considering a premium or craft tonic brand for use in the drink, rather than a more generic mixer.

The optimum ratio will vary based on taste preference, but 1 part espresso to a minimum of 3 parts tonic is the general starting point, adding more tonic as needed to find the proper balance.

Flavor profile

While the specific profile of this drink will vary widely based on the choice of espresso along with any additional flavors like bitters or a syrup, it’s important to let the base ingredients shine: Tonic is a bitter and sweet beverage that has a somewhat herbal-floral essence, offering a nice foil to the acidity and potency of a single-origin espresso.

Similar drinks

Don’t have an espresso machine? No problem: Cold-brew concentrate can stand in for spro, and is easily adjustable to taste. Try your tonic with 1 ounce to start, and add more if you prefer a stronger coffee flavor.

If you want something light and refreshing but don’t prefer the taste of tonic water, you might try a coffee soda: Plain seltzer on ice adds the cool, fizzy lifting properties and slightly bitter flavor of from the carbonation. Combine your chilled espresso or cold-brew concentrate with a flavored syrup like maple or infused simple and pour it over the soda water for a simple alternative to tonic.

How to make it at home

Prepare a shot of espresso (or a serving of cold-brew concentrate: see above, Similar Drinks) and slightly chill it with 3–4 ice cubes. Fill a highball glass with ice cubes, then pour 8 ounces of tonic water on top. Strain the espresso or cold brew on top of the seltzer. Stir to combine if you like, though some folks prefer to drink it in layers as the coffee slowly falls to the bottom of the glass.

If you’d like to add any flavor syrups, mix them with the coffee before chilling it. If you’re experimenting with bitters, add a dash or two to the tonic before pouring in the coffee.

Coffee recommendations

For a fruitier espresso tonic: Anodyne Coffee’s La Pradera coffee from Santander, Colombia, strikes a balance of sweet and fruity with notes of grenadine and complex cherry cola. A coffee like this will offer a bit of zest to complement the tonic.

Anodyne Coffee Roasting Co. Colombia La Pradera ($21.75)

For a flavored espresso tonic: You may want a sweetly clean, nutty and chocolaty coffee to create a canvas for added flavors in a tonic. Greater Goods Coffee Co.’s Good Vibes offers just that: Try it with an orange-flavored syrup and a dash of orange bitters.

Greater Goods Coffee Co. Good Vibes (Brasil) ($17.40)

For a decaf espresso tonic Espresso or coffee tonic makes a fantastic after-dinner meal, as it’s a light and refreshing palate cleanser that offers a fun alternative to heavy brewed coffee. A decaf with a hint of fruit and strong sweetness, like Máquina Coffee Roasters’ Las Montañas Decaf, is just the ticket.

Máquina Coffee Roasters Colombia Las Montañas Decaf ($22.95)