Just a few years ago, pandan was virtually unheard of in American cocktail bars. But today, the Southern Asian herb’s coconut-like flavor is being infused into spirits, syrups, cordials and tinctures and has made appearances in everything from elaborate tiki drinks to Negroni and Old-Fashioned variations.
Asked about the origins of the pandan craze, most bartenders will point to French bartender Nico de Soto, who made a name for himself with his baroque gastronomy-inspired infusions, such as peanut butter-washed whiskey and apple butter-infused Calvados.
He recalls first experimenting with pandan circa 2011 after a trip through Southeast Asia, where the herb is used widely in cooking and confections. “I think it is one of the most complex flavors you can have,” he explains. “There’s no ingredient in the world that has that nutty flavor, those layers, that complexity. It’s really insane.”
At the Experimental Cocktail Club in Paris, he began working with pandan in drinks such as the L’Alligator C’est Vert, an absinthe and coconut flip, eventually sparking a pandan trend across the Paris bar community. The Philippine Embassy in Paris even wrote an official letter to de Soto, thanking him for his role in promoting their native herb.
Although de Soto wasn’t the first to use the leaf in drinks, he undoubtedly popularized its usage. Mace, his bar in New York, for example, has featured a pandan cocktail on every menu since it opened in 2015. When the bar relocated to a larger space in Alphabet City earlier this year, naturally, the opening menu featured a pandan-spiked clarified milk punch.
The long, intensely green leaves, also known as Pandanus leaf or screwpine, of which more than 700 varieties exist, can be purchased fresh, dried or frozen from Asian grocery stores (de Soto uses whichever variety is available). Alternatively, thick green pandan extract or paste can be purchased online.
Compared to delicate mint or basil leaves, the herb doesn’t give up much aroma when muddled. Most bartenders work with fresh or frozen leaves, often steeping them into a simple syrup or infusing them into spirits. de Soto notes that steeping whole leaves for 24 to 48 hours creates a more aromatic end product, while blending is faster and adds a grassy, bitter note. Blended pandan syrup is the option de Soto uses for his Pandan-quiri, a straightforward Daiquiri riff sweetened with pandan-infused simple syrup. In some of his recipes, the syrup is also goosed with a few drops of pandan extract, adding even more nutty intensity.
Earlier this year, Mister Paradise, which recently opened just a couple of blocks from Mace, took a cheeky swipe at de Soto, who has been known to fanatically Instagram his exercise routine: the CrossFit Breakfast, a shot-sized serving of rum, coconut and coffee, is topped with malted pandan whipped cream.
For others, pandan is truly an expression of culture. “Using Pandan reminds me that I am a Filipino,” says Philippines native Gelo Honrade, bar manager at Korean gastropub Osamil (formerly of Filipino outpost Jeepney). It’s also a way for him to gently introduce Filipino flavors to an American audience when woven into traditional drinks like the Old-Fashioned and rum punch.
Thanks to its natural affinity for rum, the herb is particularly attractive to bartenders working within the tiki or tropical realm. At New York’s The Polynesian, Dave Ebert dashes pandan extract into the Killer Kiwi, a riff on Don the Beachcomber’s Pearl Diver. Meanwhile, tiki pro Garrett Richard uses it in a Tiki-Ti inspired Grasshopper Swizzle. At Lost Lake in Chicago, Paul McGee lauds the herb’s “toasted coconut flavor,” brewing it into a syrup bound for a gingery highball, while at Boston’s Baldwin Bar, Ran Duan makes a pandan tincture for the Siam Park Swizzle.
“The flavor excites me because it tastes new,” says Erick Castro of Polite Provisions in San Diego. There, he creates a pandan soda that gets mixed with roasted pineapple gin for his tall, bubbly Pineapple Princess. “[Pandan] has enough [familiar] notes to make people do a double take,” says Castro. “Like, ‘Wait, what was that?’”
Many thanks to our friends at Mister Paradise for allowing us to make a mess of their beautiful space.