Undertow Coffee: Totally Underrated But So Worth It!

When you think you’ve caught up with all the espresso variations, a new one pops out. That’s how we felt upon finding out about the Undertow Coffee.

The name sounds like a new coffee shop. But it’s a few potent shots of espresso with an extra layer. Here’s where to get it and how to prepare it at home.

Topics Explored

  1. What is Undertow Coffee?
  2. Why is it Called an Undertow?
  3. How To Order an Undertow at Starbucks
  4. Undertow Coffee Recipe
  5. Taste & Appearance
  6. More Questions

What is Undertow Coffee?

Undertow coffee is a product of creative baristas. The essential idea was to add some fun into the espresso but keep the intense flavor.

The Undertow starts with vanilla syrup, followed by cold cream and one or more espresso shots.

The finished drink should be layered from lighter to darker.

Homemade Undertow
Beautiful layers of the undertow

The Undertow started as a secret menu item that never gained massive popularity. The first mention of this coffee was sometime in 2012.

The layered espresso goodness looks attractive, but it takes a long process to achieve it. When brewing the espresso, you need to keep a spoon over the cup so it can flow smoothly over the milk, not directly through it.

Why is it Called an Undertow Coffee?

The term undertow comes from the oceanography term for the clash of two ocean currents.

Simply defined, it’s a wave under the water’s surface that moves in the opposite direction from the upper layer.

The ingredients in this drink are layered like the current. The hot liquid goes on top, and the cold one is beneath the surface.

How Do You Order an Undertow at Starbucks

Starbucks App

Step 1

Make sure to order when there are not many people around. This drink takes a few minutes and you don’t want to be holding the line.

Step 2

Start by asking for two pumps of vanilla syrup in a small cup. If you don’t like sweet coffee, add just one.

Step 3

Next, ask for a shot of half and half. You can also call a ‘breve’ if you’re feeling extra fancy. Mix the vanilla syrup with the half and half.

Step 4

Then add two espresso shots. Politely ask the barista to pour the espresso into the cup using the spoon method so the layers won’t mix.

Step 5

Get your drink and thank the barista for their patience! Try it unmixed, to experience different texture and flavors.

How to Make an Undertow Coffee

Too introverted to ask a barista to go out of their way? We have your back. 

You can learn how to make an Undertow coffee at home with ingredients you probably have on hand. It takes no more than 10 minutes! 

Undertow Coffee Recipe

How to Make an Undertow Coffee

Yield: 1 serving (~ 4oz)
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 10 minutes

This Undertow Coffee recipe yields a single serving. It's best made for a morning or afternoon pick me up due to the significant espresso content.


  • Espresso: 2 shots
  • Half and Half: 1 oz
  • Simple Syrup: 1 tbsp (or to taste)


    1. Start by picking a see through glass* so you can admire the layers. Clear Glass
    2. Then add 1 oz of chilled, unsweetened half and half to the cup.Milk in Cortado
    3. Proceed by adding one or more tablespoons of simple syrup to the cup. Notice how we're opting for unflavored syrup. That's because we don't want to dim the espresso flavor.Syrup in Milk
    4. Stir to combine the half and half with the syrup. We used unsweetened half and half so it won’t become overwhelmingly sweet. Stir Milk
    5. Brew two shots of medium roast espresso in a separate cup. Use an espresso machine or Moka pot. We choose medium roast because of its balanced flavor and a good amount of caffeine.Pulling Shot
    6. Now it's time to add the espresso. Take the back of a spoon and hold it over the cup with half and half. Pour the espresso slowly over the spoon.Espresso Over Spoon
    7. Using this process, you'll have the coffee rests on top of the half and half and not piercing to the bottom, creating layers. Enjoy it unstirred!Completed Undertow Coffee


* A cortado glass would work perfectly to showcase the Undertow.

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Taste & Appearance

Espresso, syrup, half and half, is this some form of a latte? That was precisely our thought until the first sip.

The layers make for a completely different experience. Here’s what you can expect and how to know you’ve done it well.

Espresso Over Spoon


To taste the original Undertow, never mix before drinking. You need to feel the hot current followed by the cold one. You sip the robust espresso followed by the cold sweet milk.

The uniqueness of the drink lies in the contrast of temperature and flavor.

You’re free to use any flavor syrup, but make sure you mix it with the half and half, so the sweetness is distributed well.


The appearance might remind you of a latte. The layers are precisely separated primarily due to the pouring technique. But it’s also due to the different viscosity of the espresso and the half and half. 

Picking a glass cup enhances the experience. Mixing the drink not only alters the flavor, but it destroys the perfect layers.


The technique makes all the difference.(1) As the name suggests, the two currents in your cup are separate for a reason. Stirring the drink results in a mini lukewarm sweet latte.

To get the layered effect, the espresso is poured slowly over the back of a spoon into the half and half. The result is beautifully suspended espresso on top of milk.


The calorie value of this drink depends on how you decide to customize it. Adding more or less of some of the ingredients changes the calculation. In our recipe, a single serving is 65 calories. 

Here’s the breakdown; 1 espresso shot is less than 5 calories, and we added 2 shots. Half and half is 25 calories, and a single tablespoon of syrup is 20 calories.

Final Words

Undertow Coffee

Creative baristas draw inspiration for new drinks from the most unexpected places. That’s the case with Undertow coffee, a cup mimicking the ocean currents.

The cold sweet milk followed by hot, bitter espresso poured in even layers creates a unique experience. Since it’s an older drink not many baristas know how to prepare it. But it’s easy to make at home, so save or recipe and get to work!

More Questions

How many shots does an Undertow have?

A typical Undertow comes with 2 espresso shots. However, there’s not a set limit. So if you want a bigger drink, you have to adjust the ratios. For every shot of espresso, add 1/2 oz half and half.

You would also need to adjust the sweetness, so consider adding more syrup into the half and half.

How do I order an Undertow on the Starbucks app?

You can order a drink with the same ingredients as an Undertow, but it won’t look the same, defeating the drink’s purpose. It would also change the flavor.

It’s best to get Undertow when you’re physically in the shop. Make sure there are no big lines at the moment and ask politely.

What is a John Wayne at Starbucks?

A John Wayne is the same drink as an Undertow. It got this name due to the energy boost it delivers. John Wayne was a famous actor in the 40s and 50s, primarily starring in cowboy movies.

This coffee’s quick energy jolt equals a sharp blow like John Wayne did in his movies.

Verified Sources

Wondering where your info comes from? We totally understand. Hey Joe only obtains our information from reputable sources. Contents from this article are sourced from the following publications:

  1. Delish: https://www.delish.com/food-news/a45848/starbucks-undertow-espresso/
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