Crazy for Coconut


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If crafting cocktails at home, don’t forget about coconut milk for adding that familiar tiki-texture without the sugar (photo by Alison Marras)

The humble coconut has undergone a major image overhaul over the last 10 years. Once scarce, supermarket aisles are now lined with an astounding array of all-coconut everything: water, milk, oil.

And this enthusiasm for coconut has finally trickled down to cocktails too, as evidenced by bar menus across Hawai‘i. If what comes to mind when imagining a coconut-based cocktail is a sup-par blender drink, it’s time to rethink your assumptions—the best new coconut cocktails are innovative, refreshing, and completely delicious.

First, though, let’s get a few things straight about terminology, which can get tricky. Coconut water is the clear, slightly viscous liquid that’s drained from opening a green coconut. Coconut milk is a mix of coconut water and the pureed white meat. Coconut cream is the super lux cream-like substance that separates out of the coconut milk. But don’t confuse that for the tiki staple, cream of coconut, which has sugar added to it. All four can be useful in cocktails—you just have to know what type of effect you’re looking for.

For Aaron Alcala-Mosley, lead mixologist of Luana at the Fairmont Kea Lani (fairmont. com) on Maui, coconut water lends a silky texture for cocktails. “It’s distinguishable flavor persists through a reasonable amount of dilution, and it works well for savory cocktails,” he says. “enjoy the vegetal or, as I describe it, the “green” flavor it brings to a drink. It is umami with a light sweetness, so it can pair well with herbs, citrus, and savory flavors.” He uses the ingredient in the restaurant’s Coconut Cooler, which debuted on a new menu of “skinny” cocktails in February. With muddled mint, the cocktail is fresh, herbaceous, and bright tasting.

Alcala-Mosley says coconut water is an easy ingredient to integrate into cocktails. “I usually use it as the “weak” component of a cocktail,” he explains. “Rather than necessarily adding it to a shaker and diluting it, I treat it as my dilutor. Th e rest of the cocktail components are balanced with this in mind. I have also had success with it as a “top” to a cocktail where the other components are in fact shaken first, then “topped” with an ounce or two of coconut water just to bring in a little texture.”

Other mixologists are on-board with coconut water too. At Chinatown’s The Pig & the Lady (, the Redivider features pisco, pandan and coconut water. The Royal Hawaiian’s Mai Tai Bar (, features the ingredient in the Lava Lava, a “skinny” take on the Lava Flow, made with muddled strawberry and mint, Kai coconut pandan vodka, pineapple juice and coconut water, and served on the rocks.

Cream of coconut is a much more familiar flavor in cocktails. Tiki and tropical drinks favorites, including the mighty Pin?a Colada, are built upon the sweet, super-rich ingredient. When Constantin Alexander, director of beverages for the Hakkasan Group, which oversees Waikiki’s Yauatcha (, wanted to develop a tiki-style cocktail for the menu that was “innovative and crafty,” coconut cream provided the perfect building block. “Coconut cream gives body and balance to cocktails and can be used traditionally in a variety of tiki-style drinks,” he says.

But he took a different tack than the familiar fruity cocktails. The Smoke & Coconut is made with Old Forrester bourbon, St. Germain, Lagavulin, lemon, smoked maple syrup and cream of coconut. “The color and flavor profiles are perfect for Yauatcha, which is a very bright and colorful brand,” he says.

If you’re looking to use cream of coconut at home, Alexander recommends mixing it with a variety of juices like pineapple, guava, orange or liliko‘i. “It tends to go very well with rum-based drinks,” he says. As for brands, he favors Calahua, which “is slightly sweet with deep, rich young coconut flavors” and has a smooth texture Its texture is smooth and does not have the paste consistency of some lesser products.

The Fairmont’s Alcala-Mosley agrees that doing high-quality ingredient sourcing is key when using cream of coconut. “Don’t go for the cheap stuff that tastes like high fructose corn syrup with coconut extract as it will make the cocktail taste the same way,” he says, noting that when possible, he likes to make his own version using high quality coconut milk, raw sugar, and coconut oil.

And if you’re crafting cocktails at home, Alcala-Mosley says don’t forget about coconut milk for adding that familiar tiki-texture without the sugar. He likes to use it in cold-infusions (think Earl Grey-infused coconut milk), fizzes, and traditional sours. ”I love it as a non-dairy substitute for cocktails requiring milk,” he says. “You can dilute it down to simulate a low-fat milk, or use the full monty in place of heavy cream. Try a White Russian or a Brandy Alexander this way and you may never go back! It also works great as a foam when stabilized properly as it is much more aromatic than just heavy cream.” .

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