According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, spirit sales are continuing to increase. And with many bars and restaurants still facing Covid-19 restrictions, at-home cocktail making will continue to see a surge, but mixologists are going to be looking for a bit of a twist. By now, many home bartenders have conquered the classics and put spins on their favorite restaurant adult beverages. Cue the search by bartenders both novice and professional to elevate their cocktail game with new ingredients, such as seasonal herbs and spices, or liquor swaps for new flavor profiles. But there is an ingredient found in almost every grocery store across the U.S. that is overlooked many a time when it comes to standard cocktail making: coconut water.
“Coconut water is such an underrated ingredient in cocktails. Not many bartenders use it, and they should,” says Carolina Romeo, beverage director and mixologist at WOODWIND Chicago. “Coconut water elevates the cocktail into a much denser mouthfeel without having it be viscous. It gives a cocktail a well-rounded, nutty finish. Not to mention, coconut water gives bartenders a flavor profile without the added sugars that can cause an imbalance in cocktails.”
Cracking Open the Shell
When you think about coconut water, you may picture sun, sand, surf, and a tiki-style cocktail. But coconut water is a more complex additive, deserving of more than just tropical tipples, say bartenders and mixologists, and is a simple way to step up your cocktail game.
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Coconut water adds a heavier texture to cocktails and, because of its salinity, it can help amplify other flavors in the drink more so than mineral water or tonic. “Coconut water is versatile enough to be used year-round and is a beautiful canvas to paint on with all sorts of flavors,” says Paul Taylor, beverage manager at the Columbia Room in Washington, D.C.
Romeo says that coconut water can be a bartender’s secret weapon, as it can help create a well-rounded cocktail that needs extra density and flavor without masking the nuances of a spirit. “Without compromising those unique characteristics and flavor profiles, I would use the coconut water’s mild saltiness to enhance and open up those flavors,” she says.
Sam Nelis, beverage director at Landcrafted in Montpelier, Vt., says that the light body of coconut water, combined with its sweet and nutty flavor, makes it one of the more interesting and versatile ingredients to work with. “One way to use it in cocktails is as a replacement for regular water, like using it instead of water to mix with sugar and make a syrup,” he says.
Nelis explains that using coconut water in a mocktail, like a lemonade, adds depth and a pleasant texture. But, he notes, using it in longer drinks is really where coconut water shines, as it allows for more robust flavor on the finish.
Put the Lime in the Coconut…
While rum and coconut water is a match made in cocktail heaven, there are so many more combinations to explore, both expected and not. “Gin and tequila would be two other spirits I would mix with coconut water,” says Andrew Holmes, Gosling’s Rum Bermuda brand director, adding that the mixer also lends itself to a perfect combination with fruits such as strawberry, guava, pineapple, passionfruit, and banana. Nelis, too, says gin is his go-to booze for coconut water cocktails. “They make a really refreshing cocktail together,” he says.
But Meaghan Dorman, co-owner and beverage director at Dear Irving on Hudson in New York, points out that the nutty flavor in coconut water tends to be overlooked, making it a perfect match for the toffee and vanilla flavor profile of bourbon. She explains that putting a touch of coconut water into an Old Fashioned is a great way to liven up the old favorite.
Wine cocktails, too, can benefit from a bit of coconut water. Playing it safe by adding some coconut water to a Sangria would be a good way to start, but Taylor says to reach for something a bit more out of the box for the best type of liquid pairing. “[Stay] with a lighter version of fortified wine for this, like fino sherry or blanc vermouth. Try adding coconut water to a chambéryzette (strawberries and blanc vermouth), and you will not be disappointed,” he says.
Going Nutty Year-Round
While sunshine on a beach is a pleasant image, coconut water also has a rightful place in images of dashing through the snow. Romeo explains that using coconut water year-round is not only easy, but should be a must. Make a Hot Toddy with coconut water, or a steep tea in coconut water before adding a splash of your favorite spirit.
According to Taylor, coconut water is an easy swap with amazing results, whether tiki or tundra. For the sunnier months, he recommends replacing the mineral water with coconut water in a still highball like the Tom Collins. Once you master that, it’s time to get creative. For a winter drink, he recommends batching a spiced Cosmopolitan. “Add some nutmeg and dilute the whole thing, at 25 percent of the volume, with coconut water. Place that sucker in the fridge, and pour on demand as your guests walk through the door. You will be a hero,” he says.
Holmes says a perfect use of coconut water would be to create a “skinny”-style summer favorite. “I recommended substituting coconut water for cream of coconut to make a Piña Colada with less calories,” he says.
But there are challenges to creating boozy beverages with coconut water, especially if you find yourself using one on the sweeter end of the spectrum. Holmes explains that coconut water already has a natural sweetness and some varieties do contain added sugars, which result in very sweet profiles that need to be balanced correctly, he says.
To cut the sweetness and provide balance, Holmes suggests using a bit of citrus to help brighten up the flavor. Taylor echoed this sentiment, noting that staying away from coconut water with extra ingredients as well as those that say “from concentrate” are key to creating a more balanced cocktail.
But if you’re not ready to go all in on coconut water, Nelis says that using coconut water ice cubes is a great way to bring more flavor to a cocktail, too. “I’ve also seen bartenders make ice cubes with it to serve cocktails over or even to shake their drinks with,” he says. “Shaking adds about 20 to 25 percent water to a cocktail, so why not have that water be coconutty?”