I started college in 2012, just two years after Four Loko decided to remove caffeine from its beverages after a slew of legal issues seemingly condemning its canned drinks that contained both the aforementioned caffeine along with a wine-like alcohol content. I will refrain from divulging whether I ever tried the original (cough cough), but what I can say is that, for me, the specific combo of alcohol and caffeine in a drink results in an anxiety spiral like no other. The caffeine makes my heart race, causing all of my senses to become unpleasantly sharp, while the alcohol triggers nausea, headache and general feelings of discomfort. The panic is never far behind.
It is for this reason, I thought, that we all agreed the old caffeinated Four Lokos were an unforgiveable culinary sin (along with the fact that they objectively tasted bad). So you can imagine my surprise when espresso martinis made a pronounced reappearance on the cocktail scene. Wasn’t this the same unholy combo that made us retire those weird, ugly camo cans and graduate to Franzia and PBR like any respectable college student?
But no. The espresso martini has fooled us as a culture, leaving us vulnerable to its nefarious, drug-combining ways. It’s been dressed up, buttoned down, relegated to “classy” status due to its use of iconic drinkware and because it requires the social capital to know that it’s pronounced “espresso” and not “expresso” (which I fully believed in my own Four Loko-drinking days).
We’ve been fooled, tricked, bamboozled. The espresso martini is simply an adult’s take on a Four Loko. It might look prettier and it may earn you fewer sidelong glances if you order it at a bar, but let’s not kid ourselves: Those of us with anxiety are going down a dark road when we order this trendy cocktail. And for what? To confuse our bodies about whether we’re at a meeting or on a first date? I won’t have any part of it.
But the madness hasn’t ended with the espresso martini. Coffee cocktails of all kinds are on the rise, all because the U.S. has seemingly neglected to discover the joy of the after-dinner espresso. Instead, we have to mash our coffee and cocktails together, contorting our beverages in ways they never asked for. But the coffee-cocktail combo that shocked me most was the espresso martini Jello shot.
Recently, TikToker @thespritzeffect posted a video of detailing the steps for making espresso martini Jello shots, but this recipe has been around in various forms for years. Admittedly, they do look kind of cute, and they might be fun to serve at a party. But when it comes to actually consuming them? You can count me out.
What’s really baffling to me about the espresso martini Jello shot is the fact that it’s so all over the high-low spectrum. We traded our Four Lokos for espresso martinis because they’re supposedly classier and more visually appealing than their canned cousin. Then we take it back down to college party territory by making it into a Jello shot. What are we doing? Are we okay? Is this all a reflection of our struggle to make sense of a world that’s racked with wealth inequality?
Of course, if you’ve managed, whether through genetics or a well-regulated nervous system, to avoid this particular brand of anxiety and can easily down more than half an espresso martini without crying in the bar bathroom or reliving every embarrassing thing you’ve ever said the next morning while you fight the caffeine- and hangover-induced brain buzzing, you can do what you want. Have a keg of pre-mixed espresso martinis at your wedding. Name your baby Kahlúa. Embrace what I imagine to be the joy of confidence in knowing that your cocktail selection will not meaningfully impact your mental health. But don’t lie to yourself about what you’re doing, what you’re swilling around in your cute little martini glass. You are simply drinking adult Four Loko, and that’s okay.
For the rest of us for whom espresso martinis spell near-certain anxiety, it’s about time we moved on. We need to leave the espresso martini in the past. The dirty martini and, now, the negroni sbagliato have given us new cocktail trends to obsess over and annoy our bartenders with. We can finally be free.
Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.