Cocktails

Just Add Ube

May 05, 2020

Story: Kara Newman

Art: Lizzie Munro

The vanilla-like tuber has become a colorful tool in the modern bartender’s arsenal.

When Cari Hah set out to make a cocktail with ube, a yam variety with a vibrant violet hue, she ran to her local Filipino market and bought every ube product they had. “They had ube paste, jam, extract, and of course, fresh ube,” recalls Hah, bar manager of Big Bar in Los Angeles.

“What surprised me most is that fresh is not necessarily the best,” she says. “It’s like trying to put mashed potato in a cocktail—it was a terrible idea.” Instead, she settled on just a few dashes of extract, mixed into a rich simple syrup, to add color and flavor to drinks like the Grimace’s Day Off, a Ramos Gin Fizz variation inspired by ube cake with fluffy frosting and named for the anthropomorphic purple creature featured in McDonald’s ads from the 1970s through the ’90s.

Owing a debt to Filipino desserts and drinks that often call on ube (pronounced OOH-bay), a growing number of bartenders across the country is working with the tuber. While the fervor for Instagram-worthy purple drinks has played a role in stoking demand for ube, bartenders say it’s also about the unique flavor, which Hah describes as “earthy yet floral,” and similar to vanilla, albeit “deeper, richer and more complex.”

While it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment U.S. bartenders began to embrace ube as a cocktail ingredient, it’s clear that the trajectory first began in culinary circles. In 2017, ube was already on the ascent, as second-generation Filipino chefs helped popularize dishes like chicken and ube waffles at New York’s Maharlika, ube–brown sugar pie at Los Angeles’ Irenia, and lavender-tinted ice cream pretty much everywhere. Halo halo—a frozen Filipino dessert incorporating a variety of candied fruits, milk, ube and Rice Krispies—was a particular inspiration, leading to a boozy ube milkshake served at Jeepney, a Filipino gastropub in New York’s East Village. The purple yam became so pervasive on restaurant menus, a Grub Street headline asked, “Is Ube the New Matcha?”

In 2018 and 2019, the drink began to pick up traction at bars, too. Often, ube was combined with tropical-leaning ingredients, straddling those used in Filipino cuisine (like coconut and pandan) as well as tiki-style drinks. At Bonifacio, a Filipino restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, the Oooh Bae! cocktail was intended to read like a “Filipino Margarita,” according to owner Krizzia Yanga, layering a base of tequila, orange liqueur and lime with calamansi syrup, ube jam and ube-citrus foam. And when Brian Miller opened the Polynesian in 2018, the splashy Times Square tiki bar included his Commodore Daiquiri. It was an unusual drink in many ways—defiantly stirred instead of shaken, with a vibrant purple hue accomplished by dashing in ube extract.

In general, bartenders tend to use white spirits as the backbone for ube drinks, the better to keep that purple hue on full display. While rum and rum-adjacent spirits like cachaça seem to be the favorite go-to spirits, tequila, pisco and gin also work well.

At Chicago’s Billy Sunday, general manager Stephen Andrews landed on mezcal, after trying and rejecting Scotch, sotol and other distillates for his Tropic of Cancer cocktail. It calls for both ube concentrate and ube powder, mixed with garam masala and dusted on the finished drink as a garnish. “Clean spirits with a savory edge work best,” Andrews says.

Although he didn’t set out to make a tiki drink, ube’s natural nuttiness, which he describes as “a cross between vanilla and pistachio,” made sense when mixed into an orgeat, and was harmonious with pimento dram and falernum, two spiced liqueurs.

Like many bartenders, Andrews doesn’t use ube straight, but mixes it into syrups. A small amount goes a long way, and he advises home bartenders to use it sparingly. “Use it like you would bitters,” he says of the recommended amount. Two or three drops per cocktail is all that’s needed to add vanilla aromatics and a faint starchy texture to drinks. And, of course, “The wow factor is the color,” he says.

While its striking visual impact has helped establish ube as a useful tool in the modern bartender’s arsenal, it’s an ingredient that has lasting applications beyond mere Instagram fodder. Case in point: Hah added ube to a Jack & Coke riff where the purple doesn’t even register: “It turned into this dark purple, then brown,” she explains, but the vanilla-like flavors of ube played well with bourbon—so it stayed. “I mixed together ube and pandan and said, ‘This is delicious.’”

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Tagged: billy sunday, pandan, ube