Some describe pandan’s flavor as being reminiscent of coconut crossed with vanilla, jasmine rice pudding or even buttered popcorn. Though the aroma and flavor of pandan, a herbaceous tropical plant that resembles a palm tree, may be evocative of any or all of these, it’s quite distinctive. For centuries, the long, narrow blade-like fragrant leaves of pandanus amaryllifolius have been widely used in the cuisine of Southeast Asia. In the last few years, it has gained popularity as one of the most exciting flavor components in drinks.
Nico de Soto, the founder and owner of several bars, including Mace in New York City, is credited with popularizing pandan’s use in cocktails, first employing it in 2010 after encountering it in Indonesia during his frequent international travels. “I just love the taste,” he says.
Bar consultant Colin Stevens echoes de Soto’s thoughts. “It’s such a chameleon of an ingredient and can perform so many roles in cocktails, which makes it fun to play with,” he says. “It’s versatile and unusual.”
To try pandan’s distinct flavor yourself, give these five cocktails a go, with their key ingredient delivered via syrups, extracts and fresh leaves tucked into the glass.
Nico de Soto describes pandan as having a very unique taste with a long finish. “It gives [cocktails] a kind of nutty, cooked rice, vanilla flavor,” he says. “Now that it’s more available, people realize how complex a taste it has.” For this drink from his bar Danico in Paris, de Soto combines absinthe, coconut milk and a whole egg with syrup made by blending pandan leaves with simple syrup and pandan extract.
Pandan adds a layer of complexity in this riff on the Singapore Sling created by Stevens for Southeast Asian restaurant Laut in New York City. “It can have a powerful perfume-y flavor, but because this cocktail is so intense, it takes on a supportive role and enhances the many district fruit and spice notes,” he says. Gin, Cherry Heering and pineapple, orange and lime juices are shaken with pandan syrup and Angostura bitters, served over ice and garnished with a long pandan leaf.
On the menu at Gaijin, a Chicago restaurant centered around the Japanese savory pancake okonomiyaki, is this take on kakigori, or Japanese shaved ice. Julius H. White Jr., the restaurant’s general manager and beverage director, was drawn to using pandan after pastry director Angelyne Canicosa used it in ice cream and as a glaze for mochi donuts. For this cocktail, it’s infused in a syrup, which is then mixed with gin, lychee liqueur and sweetened coconut milk syrup, drizzled over shaved ice and garnished with a pandan leaf. “When cooked down, pandan brings a really pronounced herbal note, similar to green tea,” he says.
Tropical vibes practically jump out of the glass of this Daiquiri riff created by Jo-Jo Valenzuela, the managing partner at Tiki on 18th and The Game in Washington, D.C. White rum is shaken with lime juice and a mango-pandan syrup, strained into a rocks glass over ice, given a float of Appleton Estate 12 Year rum and garnished with a dehydrated lime wheel. “Pandan adds a fragrant green aroma and makes the mango extra smooth on the palate,” says Valenzuela, who adds that it lends a roundness to cocktails in general.Continue to 5 of 5 below.
Bartender Kevin Diedrich, the general manager of and a partner in San Francisco’s Pacific Cocktail Haven (PCH) and Night Market, came across pandan during his global travels, seeing it used in cocktail bars in Europe, Singapore and Korea. “It took me a few months to wrap my head around the new flavor,” he says. "But after that, I’ve had to hold back on how often I use it.” One of several pandan drinks on the menu at PCH, this Negroni riff sees a pandan cordial stirred with gin, coconut-oil-washed Campari and Tiki bitters.