When you’re swirling cocktails for a living behind one of NYC’s top bars, it’s hard to miss what’s trending. “Late 2019, early 2020, every third drink was an espresso martini,” says Luca Forgeois, former bartender at Macao Trading Company in Lower Manhattan. “Only problem was, the espresso machine was way in back,” making it a very inconvenient drink to prepare. “I knew we needed a one-click quick solution, and other bars probably did too.”
Forgeois put his head together with foodie friend, Marc Mazzarulli, a Culinary Institute of America grad and owner of Three Little Pigs BBQ of Hawthorne, and logistics pal Lenny DiBarri, to see if they could capitalize on the canned-booze craze and create a premium, bar-quality espresso martini in a can. Noting that it would be wise to launch their new venture with more than just one drink, they decided to tackle the three most popular cocktails: the Moscow mule, the margarita, and espresso martini.
The trio spent two-plus years in trial and error and had intended to keep tweaking their burgeoning brews, but in late 2022, they won a cocktail competition hosted by media company, BevNet.
Brewed in Saratoga (and based in Maspeth, with an office in Armonk), Velvet Llama’s premium, bartender-crafted canned cocktails include a Moscow mule infused with organic Nigerian ginger; a spicy margarita with organic lime and jalapeño; and an eye-opening espresso martini with 100 mg of caffeine and 10.5% alcohol. (The marg and mule are both 5% abv.)
Regarding the coffee they use, Mazzarulli says, “it’s mellow and smooth, with lots of chocolate notes instead of bitterness.” Real ginger gives the mule a peppery finish, and jalapeño seed elicits an enduring yet subtle level of spice in the margarita.
All three flavors are on the shelves at Stew Leonard’s in Yonkers, various DeCicco & Sons stores, and a handful of restaurants and delis in Northern Westchester.
As for how Velvet Llama got its name: “We were going for velvet for consistency and paying homage to Peru, where we first sourced our coffee,” says Forgeois. “But, also, during COVID, I became consumed with videos of llamas dancing to hip hop music,” that he repeatedly shared and laughed about with his brewing buddies. Either way you shake it, says Mazzarulli, “We love the idea of a confident, world-class beverage that’s also fun and, like us, doesn’t take itself too seriously.