San Francisco loves a coffee cocktail and always has. This is a city with many worthwhile espresso martini riffs and a storied connection to the Irish coffee that goes all the way back to the 1950s. Now, for those interested in shaking up their coffee cocktail routines, there’s a cinnamon-scented, two-ingredient drink popping up on menus across San Francisco. If you haven’t already, meet the carajillo.
For those who aren’t familiar, the classic version of the cocktail includes just two things: espresso and Licor 43. It’s been on the menu at bar and restaurant Holbrook House since the luxe downtown destination debuted in September 2023. Holbrook House general manager and beverage director Hernan Martinez, who is Mexican, says he’s been carajillo fan for a long time. “Carajillos are extremely popular in Mexico, and you can find them pretty much everywhere you go,” Martinez says.
Holbrook keeps things simple with their offering, using a 1:1 ratio of Sightglass Coffee espresso to Licor 43. Aside from his personal connection to the drink, Martinez says he likes that the carajillo makes for a less sweet coffee cocktail option, as compared to drinks like an espresso martini. The Licor 43, though not an amaro, gives the carajillo some herbal bitterness and a strong vanilla profile.
There are a handful of other restaurants serving a classic carajillo around San Francisco — including California Mexican restaurant Copas on Market Street, which added the cocktail as an after-dinner drink last April, and the legendary Zuni Cafe — but some San Francisco beverage experts have started to riff on the traditional recipe.
Mission District cocktail destination True Laurel offers the TL Carajillo, a version of the drink that swaps espresso for cold brew concentrate and coffee liqueur. True Laurel co-owned Nicolas Torres told Imbibe Magazine in December that he wanted to put the popular cocktail on the menu to appeal to customers who wanted the effects of both caffeine and alcohol. But since the bar doesn’t have an espresso machine, he needed to find a workaround and landed on a combo of made-in-house cold brew concentrate and liqueur. The cocktail also gets a boost from a half-ounce of smoky scotch and a dash of salt.
At Fisherman’s Wharf restaurant Abaca, general manager and beverage director Justin Goo created what he calls a “Filipinized” version of a carajillo. The Carajillo via Amadeo takes its name from Amadeo, a coffee-growing region in the Philippines, and notably doesn’t use Licor 43 at all. “I know that’s traditionally how it's done,” Goo says, “and at the same time, it's such a simple drink, we thought, how do you make it special?” Though the restaurant does have an espresso machine, Goo didn’t want his team to have to pull shots to order for the cocktail, so their version swaps in muscovado espresso syrup made with local Mr. Epresso beans.
To echo the flavor profile of Licor 43 — vanilla custard, citrus, and cinnamon, as Goo describes — he also created a lactic pandan syrup that gives the drink a tart dimension and a heavier mouthfeel. Cinnamon-infused vodka and bourbon make up the cocktail’s boozy base, while Averna’s bittersweet and lightly citrus flavor profile rounds out the drink. Goo says he also puts thought into the visual appearance of the cocktail. “I think [coffee cocktails] should look like an espresso,” Goo says, “black on the bottom and creamy on top.”
Goo says Abaca has always had a version of an espresso martini on the cocktail menu. First, it was an espresso martini riff featuring pandan called simply the Amadeo. Then he added the Amadeo 2.0, which featured a trendy Parmesan foam on top. Goo says coffee cocktails remain popular with diners, probably because of their functionality: that appealing combination of energy-boosting caffeine to get you through the rest of your day post-brunch and a bit of alcohol to give you a buzz. “I’ve learned, why go away from what people like?” Goo says. “Just lean into it.”