As more bartenders look to international flavors for their cocktail programs, pandan, a plant native to South and Southeast Asia, has joined tropical fruits and spices like coconut, ginger and pineapple behind the bar. “It blends effortlessly into tropical and tiki recipes with any type of spirit and stands out with a lingering, savory finish reminiscent of vanilla popcorn,” says Brian Evans, head bartender at Sunday in Brooklyn.
Pandan leaves are tough and fibrous, making them hard to eat fresh, but their flavors and aromas come alive when slightly bruised or met with heat, emitting a scent that’s simultaneously grassy, floral and bready—an aroma attributed to the compound 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline, which aromatizes white bread, jasmine and basmati rice. The emerald-colored plant, also known as screwpine and often likened to woody vanilla, contributes a subtle yet unmistakable flavor to drinks. Selectively grown in tropical climates, pandan leaves can be found fresh or frozen in Asian groceries, or purchased online from retailers like ImportFood Thai Supermarket.
The appearance of pandan in cocktails is frequently attributed to Nico de Soto of New York City’s Mace. He first encountered the plant more than a decade ago in Indonesia and has been using it ever since. Mace highlights pandan in cocktails like the Pandan 3.0, which combines pandan-infused Cognac, dry curaçao, rooibos liqueur, lemon juice and bitters. Meanwhile at Bibo Ergo Sum in Los Angles, pandan softens a tangy raspberry shrub, and at Sunday in Brooklyn, Evans infuses fresh pandan leaves into coconut milk yogurt, which he then mixes with pisco, sour apple liqueur, green apple cordial, lime and cardamom bitters
At Yellowbelly in St. Louis, co-owner and beverage manager Tim Wiggins uses a tea made from dried pandan leaves in his Frio Fresco, a mix of gin, aloe vera, coconut syrup, lemon juice and pandan tea syrup. “The astringency of the tea dries out the finish of the cocktail and keeps it from being too sweet,” he says. And at Anvil Bar & Refuge in Houston, Tommy Ho’s Pandanime cocktail combines a pandan syrup made from extract (available in grocery stores and online) with white rum, apple brandy, oregat and heavy cream for a super-smooth tropical cooler. Jeremy Vanaman also uses pandan to add depth to simple syrup at Mott Street in Chicago. For his Sailor’s Wage granita, navy strength rum meets pandan-infused syrup, coconut water, amaro and lime.
Though not yet a staple ingredient in North America, pandan’s unique aroma and flavor offer plenty of potential for broader discovery by drink makers. “Pandan delivers an enigmatic yet comforting flavor to cocktails,” Sunday in Brooklyn’s Evans says.
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