The 2-ingredient espresso tonic is the drink of spring. Here’s how to make the best one

Plus, two other coffee sodas to keep you sipping pretty for the rest of patio season

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published April 21, 2023 12:03PM (EDT)

Espresso Tonic (Getty Images/Dudits)
Espresso Tonic (Getty Images/Dudits)

The weather is officially hovering over 50 degrees here in Chicago, which means that almost every cafe within a 15-block radius of my apartment has ceremoniously reopened their patios and added some kind of sparkling coffee drink back to their menus. The desire for caffeine, bitterness and bubbles, however, is seemingly a national phenomenon. 

"Welcome to espresso tonic summer," declared Food & Wine earlier this week, while in my Instagram and TikTok feed, foamy pistachio lattes and the vestiges of Dalgona coffee mania are being steadily replaced by crisp images of ice-packed glasses filled with fizzy, deep mahogany-colored coffee sodas. 

Now, there are multiple ways to combine coffee and sparkling drinks — all of which have their own unique perks. In preparation for patio-season brunches and mid-afternoon caffeine breaks, here is a breakdown of three of my favorites versions to make at home. 

Espresso tonic 

As Merlyn Miller wrote for Food & Wine, the espresso tonic first gained traction in Sweden in the mid-2000s, as it was allegedly created by a barista at Koppi Roasters in 2007. "It grew in popularity throughout Scandavia, and eventually made its way abroad through barista competitions, like the World Barista Championship," she wrote. 

As she points out, its popularity is not incredibly widespread in the States, but the refreshing drink can be found on menus at Nashville's Barista Parlor, Brooklyn's Konditori and Chicago's F.R.O.T.H

Now, I say it's refreshing because I personally love the taste of tonic water, which is a little different from club soda or sparkling water; tonic water is made with dissolved quinine and a hint of added sugar, resulting in a bitter, slightly citrusy flavor. As such, it actually enhances both some of the more bracing and floral notes in a shot of espresso. 

You only really need two ingredients to make an espresso tonic so, as basic as it sounds, the key to making a great one is to choose good ingredients. While for a long time tonic water was a pretty limited category on American shelves, in recent years, a ton of craft makers have hit the market. One of my favorites is the grapefruit and lime-flavored Indian Tonic Water from Milwaukee's Top Note. The addition of the citrus flavor is really stellar. For a more classic "gin and tonic" tonic flavor, you really can't go wrong with Fentiman's Tonic Water

In terms of espresso, you don't need a machine to get a good shot at home. You just need pressure — which can come from an AeroPress, a Moka Pot or even a French press. I found the brew guides from Intelligentsia to be incredibly helpful when learning how to do this myself.  You can also use a bottled espresso or espresso concentrate, from brands like High Brew and Chameleon, which have become even more popular thanks to the espresso martini renaissance

I've found a good ratio to be four ounces of tonic to two shots of espresso — ideally served over a single, outrageously large ice cube in a stout little glass. People argue about which goes in the glass first, but I'm partial to topping the tonic with the espresso simply because it looks cooler in the glass. See below: 

By the way, if you are willing to add a third ingredient, a little squeeze of orange juice would take this drink over the top (though if you want to go all in on the orange juice/coffee mash-up, check out Mary Elizabeth Williams' recipe for orange coffee soda, inspired by Nashville's Steadfast Coffee). Also, if you don't tend to take your coffee black or find straight espresso to be too bitter, consider adding a swirl of flavored simple syrup to the mix. 

Sparkling Americano 

The Sparkling Americano is a little less astringent version of the espresso tonic. You may remember in 2017 when Starbucks announced the development of a new patent-pending cold extraction process that produced a shot of cold-pressed espresso. With that cold-pressed espresso, they introduced several new beverages, including a Sparkling Cold-Pressed Americano. 

Again, you don't need a fancy coffee machine to make this drink. Simply make or buy a shot or two of espresso using one of the techniques or brands above, pour it over ice and then top it with a splash of sparkling water. Topo Chico is my personal favorite, but definitely have fun with all the delicious lightly-flavored sparkling waters on the shelves now. For example, Sound has a sparkling water infused with grapefruit, lavender and ginger, all flavors that play really well with bitter espresso. 

Cold brew spritz

Finally, the cold brew spritz — or the sparkling cold brew — is another variation on this theme. For this, you just need a few ounces of cold brew concentrate. However, instead of adding plain tap water when it comes time to make your morning beverage, replace it with your favorite sparkling water. Most brands of concentrate will have recommended ratios for cold brew to water, so use this as a guide when mixing your drink. La Colombe's Cold Brew Concentrate is my go-to, but Starbucks Signature Black Cold Brew Concentrate is readily available and honestly really good. 

You can find the brand's recipe for a Sparkling Cold Brew here. 

It's perfect over pellet (a.k.a. "the good ice"), served with a cute, reusable straw.

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By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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