Hellish heat calls for all kinds of summer coolers. When it comes to summer drinks in Japan, the beloved classics are sports drink like Pocari Sweat or a bottle of cold green tea. In the last few summers in Japan, however, coffee lovers have been hyped for the espresso tonic.
The bitterness of both components combines well in a drink that is refreshing and doesn’t compromise on flavor. It’s a bubblier, stronger, bolder sibling to a more classic ice coffee.
Almost all specialty coffee roasters as well as coffee chains feature a seasonal espresso tonic on the menu nowadays. Recently, they have been taking things up a notch as well, swapping the tonic for a whole host of other refreshing drinks.
The Start of The Espresso Tonic Trend
The espresso tonic has been popular only for a couple of years and has been around just a bit longer. It was reportedly invented by Swedish baristas Charles Nystrand and Anne Lunell while in Norway in 2007, before becoming popular worldwide. Leftover tonic after a party and a hankering for coffee were the two sparks driving the innovation.
In Japan, espresso tonic became a hit in the hipster specialty coffee shops between 2015 and 2016. Nescafe and Suntory had tried placing carbonated coffee on the market before, without success. But this time around, thanks to the quality espresso shots, espresso tonic became a summer hit. Soon after, bigger coffee franchises followed suit.
If you crave an espresso tonic, you’ll find it in almost every specialty coffee shop this summer. And if you crave an espresso gin tonic, you can order a DIY kit from Blue Bottle Coffee Japan.
Switching Out the Tonic
Although it all started with tonic, many coffee shops soon started replacing it with sparkling water. Some people prefer the milder less bitter version, while tonic is also a bit harder to find in Japan. Other liquids, preferably bitter or sour, can play the tonic role too. Sometimes other flavorings are added to espresso tonic for different versions of the drink. Taste, as well as thirst for innovation, have been giving rise to more and more takes on the espresso tonic.
Espresso With Lemon, Orange & Other Citrus Fruits
The most ubiquitous take on the drink is espresso (tonic) lemonade — there are versions with and without tonic in the mix. A slice of lemon is often added to tonic, so it is only natural to play with citrus fruits for this drink. There are also lemonade versions with honey, ginger and salt. Switching out the lemon, there are espresso lime tonic and espresso yuzu tonic versions too. Technically, any tart fruit can also make for a great combination.
Another emerging trend is orange espresso where a shot of espresso is poured on a glass of orange juice. Orange famously goes well with cocoa and coffee, so the drink is well-balanced. The result is a flavor that is richer and deeper than espresso lemonade, where the lemon cuts through the coffee oils. There are sparkling orange coffee and orange coffee tonic versions too.
Where to try it:
First point of business is checking your local specialty coffee shops. We have spotted lemon coffee made with Setouchi lemons in Sarutahiko Coffee’s stores. Orange espresso is on the summer menu in Porta Coffee Stand in Koenji, as well as orange espresso tonic in Eataly Ginza Six, made with Sicilian orange.
Espresso and Cola
Coca-Cola coffee in a can went viral in Japan in 2018, selling out everywhere in record speed. Everyone wanted to try it out of curiosity, which is an impulse satisfied with one drink. The hype died down soon after. However, much like espresso tonic and sparkling coffee, small specialty coffee shops are reviving the espresso cola trend. The success lies in using good coffee, freshly made and poured over fragrant craft cola. Craft cola is another trend on the rise in Japan, often sold in specialty coffee shops. This summer, coffee shops are mixing the two drinks for a tasty deeply spiced coffee cola. It’s a great combination, nothing like the drink in the can back in 2018.
Where to try it:
This one is still an emerging trend, so you will need to keep an eye out for it. We have spotted it in Rowan’s Coffee in Musashino so far. Popular craft cola brand Iyoshi Cola sold coffee cola syrup in collaboration with Maruyama Coffee in 2020 and Light Up Coffee sells coffee cola syrup online that you can dilute with sparkling water at home.
Switching Out the Espresso
Less popular and a rarer occurrence, there are now also versions of the espresso tonic drinks without the espresso. Some coffee shops are using a cold brew instead of espresso, which means no crema and no foamy top. In Japan, to the chagrin of coffee people, some coffee shops have also been trying out tea instead of coffee. One popular example is the matcha sparkling drink at Kashinoki Coffee in Tachikawa.
Transparent Coffee is Back
Another Japanese coffee that previously went viral is coming back. The transparent 7-Eleven coffee made with a special technique confused and amused customers a few years ago. The drink looks like water but unmistakably tastes like coffee. This year, Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Nakameguro is giving the translucent potion a whirl.
The Roastery offers three limited-edition summer coffee drinks made with clear coffee: an espresso lemon tonic, a coffee lime soda and a coffee strawberry soda. Aside from that, there is also an orange espresso, made with regular coffee and orange juice, enhanced with raspberry and lemon.