At the Bangkok bar Lost in Thaislation, the drinks list has a disclaimer that reads: “This is a drinks menu.” After all, when you read “Chicken Rice,” “Larb,” “Pad Thai” or “Mango Sticky Rice,” cocktails aren’t the first thing that come to mind.
However, it’s increasingly common to see names of popular dishes on a drinks menu throughout the capital city. Mango Sticky Rice, in particular, abounds, and the Thai dessert has inspired drinks at some of Bangkok’s best bars. Vesper, for example, an award-winning local haunt in Silom, serves a version made with vodka that’s topped with condensed milk and coconut foam. The Bamboo Bar, a long-standing jazz venue, makes its own rum- and vodka-based iteration that’s supported by jasmine rice syrup and a mango honey foam.
“My mind goes straight for the Mango Sticky Rice when I was thinking of the menu [for The Bamboo Bar],” says bar manager Chanel Adams. “It tastes great, the ingredients go together, it’s perfect for a hot day, and it also helps that I love Thai fruits.”
View this post on Instagram
At Lost in Thaislation, a bar whose goal is to translate “solid to liquid,” the Mango Sticky Rice is perhaps at its most technical. To make the high-concept take, bar staff mixes white rum with bianco vermouth and the bar’s own amazake, which is made from sato (a rice wine from northeastern Thailand) and freshly cooked sticky rice. The mix is shaken, poured into a coupe glass and topped with mango mousse before getting dusted thoroughly with kinako powder (roasted soybean flour commonly found in Japanese desserts) as well as housemade coconut chips, which are made from coconut milk and cold-pressed coconut oil blended together.
According to Lost in Thaislation owner and bar manager Suchada “Fahbeer” Sopajaree, translating a dish into a cocktail is not exactly the easiest feat: Savory drinks aren’t the first thing that people turn to after a hard day’s work or that tourists look for when they’re on vacation and want something simple and refreshing. Plus, Fahbeer makes a conscious effort to distinguish the dish-inspired drinks and not get too literal. “If I make something that tastes identical to the dish that I’m trying to replicate, why don’t I just go out and buy that dish instead of a cocktail that costs 10 times the price?” she says.
So why do the bartenders of Bangkok even bother?
Unlike many other cities, which boast a rich history of cocktails, Bangkok doesn’t really have a drink to call its own yet. “Many locals were introduced to alcohol through the spirit-and-mixer combo,” explains Fahbeer, “so if you compare the price and quantity, many still don’t understand why they should pay for a cocktail.” Thailand’s laws prohibiting alcohol advertising don’t help, either.
Because of that history, we don’t really have a version of what the Caipirinha is to Brazil, or what sangria is to Spain. What we do have, however, is an array of interesting local ingredients, and a city that, thanks to pioneering bartenders like Fahbeer, increasingly embraces cocktail culture.
As such, when creating a cocktail menu, many turn to what Thailand is already renowned for: food. Bangkok is famous for its abundant street stalls selling skewers and other local staples, along with markets available day and night. Chefs and home cooks frequent these markets for fresh ingredients to use, and the same can be said for bartenders of the city.
View this post on Instagram
Of course, incorporating local ingredients into cocktails isn’t a new idea, and you’ll find that readily throughout the city: Makrut lime leaves garnish drinks on the menu at Jhol, a local Indian restaurant, for instance, and Abar, a rooftop venue, pairs rum cocktails with Thai basil and chile. But in Bangkok, bartenders are also turning to whole dishes as inspiration, reverse-engineering them into a cocktail with modern drink techniques. It can be easier to introduce a well-known dessert in liquid form than to explain an all-spirit drink like a Negroni to those unfamiliar with it.
And that’s why you can drink a Khao Man Gai at Lost in Thaislation or a Satay at Bar US, and why, if you live in Bangkok, the Mango Sticky Rice could be your go-to cocktail order. In the latter, the flavors are easily recognized by local Thais, yet approachable to visitors. The refreshing, creamy mango, the subtly sweet rice, the coconut cream—these ingredients naturally work well together, while presenting as the perfect showcase of the Thai palate.
So for a country that doesn’t yet have one, maybe in a way, this is our own expression of a regional cocktail—something easily enjoyed by locals and visitors alike, and that bartenders are eager to put their own spin on.