From luscious fruits to powerful herbs and spices, the flavours of southeast Asia are a veritable playground for experimental bartenders
Like some of you, I’m desperately missing travel, which always involved research at hundreds of the world’s best bars each year. Meanwhile, bartenders and owners are struggling to survive through various resurgences, lockdowns and legislation that differs globally. Some are even fighting for the right to serve cocktails at all. Many are getting creative and sharing their beautiful drinks via delivery, pickup, at their bars… and here, with us.
We talk with three bars – in San Francisco, Singapore and Bangkok – on the theme of Asian ingredients in cocktails. Each bartender shares a recipe that showcases Asian ingredients, allowing us the chance to recreate a signature drink from across the world at home. These bars are exactly where we’re headed when we are travelling in each of these cities again. Cheers!
Kona’s Street Market, San Francisco, US – Kevin Diedrich
There are few bartenders who better deserved winning Tales of the Cocktail’s American Bartender of the Year, after being triple-nominated (also for Best American Cocktail Bar and Best American Bar Team) in the 2020 awards. Kevin Diedrich is a long-time industry vet whose forward-thinking, complex, delicious cocktails stand out in the global drink scene. But it’s his unassuming, welcoming service that confirms why he won American Bartender of the Year.
Tragically, Diedrich’s beloved PCH bar (Pacific Cocktail Haven) in San Francisco burnt down in February 2021, the same week he was opening Kona’s Street Market, years in the works, with business partners Andy Chun and Brian Means (Means is another of the US’s great bartenders and, with Diedrich, the co-creator of Kona’s cocktails).
Diedrich’s Filipino heritage certainly plays into his now-famous use of ingredients like pandan, a southeast Asian leaf he has long worked wonders with, including in his iconic Leeward Negroni at PCH. He goes new places with gin and pandan at Kona’s in the Boracay Old Fashioned. Infusing Sapphire East Gin with pandan leaves, he reaches spirituous, silky perfection with dry vermouth, coconut water, bay leaf syrup and makrut (kaffir) lime tincture. It’s iconic Diedrich in complexity yet utterly drinkable, one of numerous cocktails under the Asia-Pacific section on Diedrich and Means’ cocktail menu, inspired by global street markets in the Middle East, Africa, Europe, the Americas and Asia-Pacific.
Diedrich says of the cocktail’s inspiration, “Rum and whiskey in an Old Fashioned are too traditional. I wanted gin to shine in a spirit-driven tropical cocktail. Pandan and the botanicals of gin work very well together. Then adding a bit of savoury bay leaf to the mix with a little blanc vermouth and coconut water, all the flavours round out to a multi-layered Gin Old Fashioned.”
Boracay Old Fashioned
- 45ml Pandan-infused Sapphire East Gin***
- 15ml coconut water
- 22.5ml Dolin Blanc Vermouth
- 12.5ml Bay Leaf Syrup**
- 2 dashes makrut lime tincture* (There are also options like Ms. Betters Kaffir Lime Bitters)
Stir all ingredients together then pour over a big ice rock in double rocks glass. Garnish with a Calamansi lime wheel.
- 1 small bunch of pandan leaves
- 1 litre gin
Combine the pandan leaves and gin in a bag and vacuum seal. Steam for 30 minutes at 160ºF/71ºC. Strain the liquid from the leaves.
Markut lime tincture**
- 500ml EverClear
- 10 fresh kaffir/makrut lime leaves
- orange bitters
Combine the EverClear and kaffir/makrut lime leaves in an airtight container and let sit at room temperature for 72 hours. Strain the liquid from the leaves. Blend ½ portion of tincture with 1 part orange bitters.
Bay leaf syrup*
- 5-6 dried bay leaves
- 1 litre hot water
- 1kg white sugar
In a large carafe, steep the bay leaves in the water for five minutes. Add sugar and stir until dissolved. Strain out and refrigerate.
Asia Today/Teens of Thailand/Tax, Bangkok, Thailand – Niks Anuman-Rajadhon
Niks Anuman-Rajadhon and Gunn Leelhasuwanopened changed the bar game in Bangkok with gin destination Teens of Thailand in 2015 in the winding alleyways of Bangkok’s Chinatown. Then they opened Asia Today nearby in 2017, and in late 2020, their third bar, Tax. Their bars aided the neighbourhood’s revival, although in a country still more harsh on alcohol and drinking, the reputation of the popular drinking ‘hood remains a struggle. Niks and Gunn continue to be a voice for the city and the neighbourhood’s bar scene, as their recent photo shoot in Chinatown showcases the area, cocktails and Bangkok’s young adults with honesty and edge.
It was rare to find gin cocktails in Bangkok until Teens of Thailand, which offers the country’s largest gin selection and a range of gin and tonics. Niks also has a passion to highlight Thai-grown ingredients in cocktails (like local honeys and chocolate) and to showcase rum at Asia Today, a spirit that struggles in Thailand due to limiting laws on what can be called rum.
Anuman-Rajadhon has been an outspoken local drink pioneer and a crucial voice in Thailand’s spirits and cocktail world – and it’s only harder in the pandemic. “The pandemic has been a real bummer, especially in a country where the alcohol industry is always to blame,” Niks explains. “Alcohol
was banned for consumption in outlets during the second lockdown. And online alcohol sales are illegal, not to mention numerous laws that prohibited bars to bottle cocktails or do deliveries. Moreover, promoting alcohol consumption is also illegal. Not even logos can be shown. We got fined during the first lockdown for promoting alcohol sales.”
All three of their bars were closed during the second lockdown in January 2021 with no aid from the state, selling local coffee and what they could to survive. “I personally have been out to protest with alcohol industry people to demand a lift on alcohol bans,” says Niks. “Bars have been allowed to open and sell alcohol now. Things are slowly getting back to normal but the damage has been done. My work as a bartender has already passed and evolved into something else. I am here to make sure that my team will survive this pandemic. As bar owners, we have never been more caring and worried about our team. And you learn that you have to find that fight in you and push through.”
- 45ml Nao Spirits’ Greater Than Gin
- 15ml fresh lime juice
- 17ml Apis Cerana honey from Chiangr Rai, Thailand (or other local honey in a
- given country)
- 1ml (or a couple of dashes) Angostura bitters
Shake the ingredients with ice, then strain into a bee wax mug (or other mug), top with honey foam (froth up 60ml milk with a spoonful of honey). If desired, garnish with a dusting of black sesame and twist a lemon rind over the drink to release citrus oils, then discard.
Bitters and Love, Singapore – Beverly Yeoh
Bitters and Love (B&L) is a locals’ favourite and The World’s 5 Best Bars Discovery cocktail bar, opened by Ernest Goh and Beverly (aka Bev) Yeoh in 2012. Their intimate space was convivial and festive with the likes of Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears tunes cranking and seasonal cocktails often reflecting Singaporean sensibilities, like a kaya toast cocktail – one of Singapore’s most beloved “dishes”, kaya toast is fluffy bread smothered in butter and kaya (pandan coconut jam).
But the pandemic has wreaked havoc. “During the pandemic, Singapore was on lockdown for three months,” explain Ernest and Bev. “During this time, we developed our online delivery platform and created a sustainability series of cocktails for delivery using fruits as vessels (e.g. pineapple and watermelon). We also created deconstructed DIY cocktail kits so people could mix their own cocktails at home.”
B&L now has a robust to-go food menu, featuring everything from the B&L beef burger to fish and chips, alongside snacks, coffee and heat-up-at-home, ready-to-eat meals. They sell spirits, including rarities locally like Geranium Gin from the UK. The cocktail menu is understandably simplified in the pandemic, with a shorter list of offerings and gin drinks like a Grapefruit Rosemary Fizz: gin, sweet and sour mix, grapefruit juice and pink grapefruit tonic water.
“These times, we have to think outside the box,” says Ernest. “People used to come to the bar to drink, now we have to find ways to have a presence in the comfort of people’s homes. Be it cocktails, packaging or service, we need to create more of an experience than ever before to stand out.”
Bev created their house Coconut Pandan Negroni as a tribute to Singapore and one of the world’s favourite classic cocktails. “We wanted to create a cocktail using local ingredients like pandan and coconut that can be representative of Singaporean heritage,” Bev says. “Pandan and coconut are used in many traditional dishes like kaya, laksa and nasi lemak.”
Coconut Pandan Negroni
- 30ml coconut fat-washed Geranium Gin
- 20ml sweet vermouth
- 10ml white vermouth
- 30ml pandan-infused Marendry Fabbri bitter liqueur
Stir all ingredients until bracing cold. Pour into a rocks glass over one large ice cube.
Looking for more cocktail inspiration? Check out our Cocktail of the Week archive.