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There’s making coffee, and then there’s making cocktails. Where the two meet in the middle is a special place—take rich, velvety Espresso Martinis, The Dead Rabbit’s iconic Irish Coffee, and Cold Brew Negronis, for example, all tried-and-true crowd-pleasers. But like any other cocktail, every ingredient in a coffee drink matters, especially the coffee itself.
When mixing up a good coffee cocktail, rule of thumb number one is using quality coffee, and the way it’s brewed is of equal importance. Luckily, there are more ways than one to do so, according to Brooklyn- and Montreal-based coffee and cocktail educator Amanda Whitt, who’s partial to the Breville Barista series for low-volume bartending (its budget-friendly price tag doesn’t hurt, either). Here, Whitt and fellow industry experts Jillian Vose of The Dead Rabbit in New York City, Partners Coffee’s green coffee buyer Sam Klein, and Louisville bar director Dana Darley weigh in on their favorite approaches to making and serving the best possible coffee cocktails.
Best Overall: Technivorm Moccamaster KBGV Select Coffee Maker
Multiple color options
Easy to use
If you’re looking for a quality drip coffee machine that’s easy to use, Whitt recommends going with the Technivorm Moccamaster, a favorite amongst coffee professionals internationally.
“It’s unbelievably consistent, and looks sharp—especially if you can spring for one of the bold, brightly-colored options,” notes Whitt. The Moccamaster 10-cup coffee maker, which is top-rated across the board, brews an entire pot in four to six minutes using its signature shower-style drip head and lightning-fast copper coil water heating system. Whitt advises grinding your own beans when using a machine such as this one, as fresh grounds will always yield a better cup. “A burr grinder is ideal—I have received excellent customer service and long life from my Baratza grinders. Whatever option you use, purchasing well-sourced, quality coffee will make all the difference."
Best Value: Bodum Java Coffee Press 4-Piece Set
More involved cleanup than filter systems
A good French press is a staple in any kitchen, whether at home or the office. And this approach to making coffee is more versatile than one might think. Of course, French press coffee makers are known for making delicious hot coffee and tea with minimal effort and time, but they can also be used to make cold brew overnight or to infuse a variety of ingredients with your favorite spirit. Bodum is a long-trusted name in coffee brewing, and you can’t go wrong with any of their French press options (especially this one, which includes a scoop, an hourglass timer, and a milk frother).
Best Splurge: De’Longhi La Specialista Espresso Machine
De’Longhi is an icon in espresso machinery, a trade that’s taken very seriously in Italy (the brand’s homeland, if you hadn’t already guessed). Needless to say, this is an excellent route to take when shopping for a veritable manual espresso machine with all the bells and whistles you’d find at a quaint corner tabacchi in any given Italian city or town. The name alone is worth the splurge, but in case you’re not yet convinced, here are a few key features of the De’Longhi La Specialista Maestro: eight grind settings, a “smart” tamping station, a pre-infusion system that ensures even water distribution based on grind level, a powerful steam wand with its own separate heating system, two single-wall filter baskets, a dishwasher-safe drip tray, and more.
Best Commercial: BUNN 12-Cup Commercial Coffee Brewer
High brew yield
Balanced coffee strength and taste
It may not look like much, but a classic BUNN commercial drip machine does the trick for serving hot coffee cocktails at high volume, especially when combined with Vose’s secret weapons for the perfect Irish Coffee: a sous vide setup and a couple of protein shakers.
“The drip coffee machine ensures the coffee isn't too strong and balances perfectly with a quality whiskey—we always use Bushmills Original for ours—[and] the sous vide keeps the coffee and Demerara mixture piping hot without scalding the liquid,” Vose tells Liquor.com. At The Dead Rabbit in Lower Manhattan, Vose and her team keep the sweetened coffee in plastic bottles submerged in hot water (176 degrees Fahrenheit, to be exact) using the sous vide, serving their iconic Irish Coffee to order. For the whipped cream, Vose recommends using a bottle and agitator designed for protein shakes, which together make the process easy and won’t leave sticky cream residue all over your other bar tools.
Related: The Best Coffees for Cold Brews
Best Compact: Chemex Classic Series, Pour-Over Glass Coffeemaker, 10 Cup
Higher control of variables
More flavorful cup
Slower and more labor-intensive process
Sometimes, simplicity is best, and that’s exactly what you’ll get with a classic Chemex pour-over coffee maker. All you’ll really need in order to make coffee using this glass vessel is a filter, coffee grounds, and hot water, though Whitt advises picking up a high-quality electric kettle designed for this specific purpose in order to make the best possible brew. Together, a Chemex and kettle are “easy to pack up after brunch,” says Whitt, making this a great option for use at home or behind the bar.
The pour-over method works similarly to a drip machine but is controlled manually (meaning the water is poured by hand) versus being automated, and the draw here is that using the pour-over approach offers more control over the end product based on variables like brew time and water temperature. All in all, you’ll get a more flavorful cup from a pour-over versus drip system, though an untrained palate might not necessarily pick up on the subtle differences if the coffee is mixed into a cocktail.
"I'm obsessed with my Chemex. While pour-over may take extra time, I love being in control of every step of the coffee-making process, and appreciate the ritual involved."
—Prairie Rose, Editor
Best for Capsules: Nespresso Creatista Plus
Easy to use
Can be slow if making multiple coffee cocktails at once
“Nespresso by Breville has been the MVP for my program because it’s user friendly and consistent for a space that wants a quality espresso [or] coffee, but doesn’t have the levels of coffee-specific business to support thousands of dollars set up,” says Darley, who works as Food and Beverage Director of The Louisville Thoroughbred Society. “With staffing struggles and the current market climate, nothing has been more effective than ease of execution and consistency in [the] end product. The pod options are diverse, and it’s convenient to just have them directly shipped. It doesn’t hurt that they offer a recycling responsibility program for the empties.”
Related: The Best Coffee Liqueurs
Best for Espresso: Breville The Barista Express Espresso Machine
Works in both home and commercial settings
Not suitable for high volume
“For low-volume espresso and cost/footprint concerns, I still haven’t seen anyone beat the Breville Barista Series,” Whitt shares, noting that many of the models in this series come with a grinder and tamper mechanism. “[This allows] you to select your own coffee and gives a lot of ability to dial in its extraction.”
Having precise control over your espresso shot and its flavor profile means more control over your final drink, which is great for pro bartenders (or the home bartender who takes their drinks very seriously). Breville’s Barista Express features a half-pound capacity hopper, a pressure gauge, 1- and 2-cup presets, a swiveling steam wand, one portafilter (plus four baskets), a stainless steel steaming jug, and more.
Best for Cold Brew: Toddy Cold Brew Coffee Maker System
Easy to use
Brews both hot and cold coffee
Thin decanter glass
"Making great espresso at home can be an expensive, time-devouring endeavor, [while] cold-brewed coffee can provide the rich, chocolatey flavors that play well in coffee cocktails in a lower-cost, lower-maintenance way,” Klein advises. “Bonus: It's already chilled, so your dilution will be predictable, and you won't need extra ice. The Toddy Cold Brew System is my favorite way to prepare a cold brew concentrate that will hold its own against spirits."
Best for Budget Espresso: Coffee Gator Espresso Machine
Fast heat-up time
Must manually stop brewing
Not the strongest steam wand
With its bold, concentrated flavors, espresso pairs well with a number of spirits and liqueurs, especially in cases where drip coffee would be overpowered by alcohol. Unfortunately, espresso makers aren’t as omnipresent as drip coffee makers, largely because of their prohibitive cost and the sense that expertise is required to use them. That’s where the Coffee Gator Espresso Machine comes in. It consistently produces rich espresso shots that will keep you buzzing throughout the night, and it’s sold at a reasonable price.
This low-budget option is ideal for customers who won’t get much use out of pricier, more elaborate espresso makers, as well as those looking for a simple and intuitive interface. As a bonus, you won’t have to wait for long to get a drink in hand because the device heats up in roughly 20 seconds. It measures just 5.5 inches wide and 12.4 inches long, so users have plenty of counter space to play bartender at night and barista the next day.
The answer to which coffee setup is best for your cocktail endeavors can be found somewhere between how you like your everyday cup and the kind of cocktails you plan on making. If you want to make cold brew cocktails, go for something that will allow you to brew using cold water in addition to hot water, such as the classic Toddy system (view at Amazon) or a trusty French press. For classic hot coffee cocktails, you can essentially use any option on this list (if you’re working with an espresso machine, simply add hot water to a shot or two of espresso to make an Americano). Espresso-specific drinks, such as the classic Espresso Martini, will require an espresso machine, in which case we highly recommend a De’Longhi machine (view at Williams Sonoma) as it’ll last you a lifetime, making the investment totally worth it. If you prefer a more budget-friendly option, though, you can absolutely get away with using a Nespresso by Breville (view at Amazon), per Darley’s recommendation.
What to Look For in a Coffee Maker for Coffee Cocktails
Again, determining the kind(s) of cocktails you’ll be making will be key in determining which style of coffee maker to purchase. If you’re looking for versatility, consider an espresso machine, which is the only real way to make a legitimate shot of espresso (and thus a proper espresso cocktail); espresso can be elongated with water to mimic the increased volume and decreased intensity of an American-style cup of hot coffee. A standard drip coffee maker cannot make espresso or true cold brew, and neither can a pour-over, but there’s nobody stopping you from brewing a cup of hot coffee and sticking it in the refrigerator (after it’s cooled, of course). Cold brew-specific setups like the Toddy system can make both cold brew and hot coffee, as can a French press, but neither can make espresso.
Labor and Time
Another element to consider before buying is the amount of labor a coffee maker will require. Of the different types of methods we’ve covered, drip machines generally require the least amount of physical work and time (particularly the Moccamaster by Technivorm), and Nespresso machines are also quite quick and efficient with minimal effort required. True espresso machines are a bit more complicated to use, but once you get it going, most espresso shots take less than a minute to pull. Cold brewing often takes between 12 and 24 hours to steep, whereas pour-overs are somewhere in the middle of everything, taking around three minutes per cup to brew and requiring constant pouring throughout.
What is the general water temperature of coffee makers?
According to the National Coffee Association, most home brewing methods maintain a water temperature of between 195 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit (aim for this same temperature range when heating water for a pour-over). The average temperature for espresso machines is somewhere between 190 and 196 degrees Fahrenheit, the key difference being the intense pressure used to pass the water through the puck of coffee grounds. For perfectly consistent temperature management over longer periods of time, give Vose’s sous-vide method a try.
How do you clean a coffee maker?
Depending on the type of coffee maker you’re working with, you should be able to brew a 1:1 mixture of white vinegar and water for one cycle to remove buildup; then follow it up with a few cycles of plain water to get rid of any residual odor or taste (this is ideal for drip coffee makers). You can also use this same mixture to clean manual setups like a French press or a Chemex—simply soak the parts in the vinegar and water mixture, then scrub away to remove any hard water buildup and rinse thoroughly. Espresso machines should be cleaned with a specialty cleaning product and a brush.
What’s the best way to store a coffee maker?
Your coffee maker can live right on your countertop if you use it frequently. If not, simply keep it in a cool, dry cabinet when not in use.
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Céline Bossart is a former coffee roaster and barista who has worked in the coffee business in both Paris and New York City. She knows her way around almost every coffee brewing contraption out there, and when it comes to coffee in cocktails—another area of expertise after covering the wine and spirits industries for over seven years—she’s in her element twice over.
Read Next: The Best Cold Brew Coffee Makers