Put the Lime in the Coconut (and Drink ‘Em Both Up)

By / Wine + Drinks / April 25th, 2019 / 12
coconut milk

Got Milk?

Coconut milk, that is. And you probably do have a can on hand, seeing as coconut milk is practically indispensable in a range of curries, soups and rice dishes. You just might be wasting that magical ingredient’s full potential, though, if you’re only using it in food, since it’s also an amazing way to brighten up cocktails.

In fact, I’d argue that the best piña coladas are made with coconut milk, as opposed to the overly-sweet Coco López that was commonly used to make tropical blender drinks back in the 1980s and 1990s. With unsweetened coconut milk, it’s easier to control the amount of sugar, most of which can come from the fresh pineapple juice and sweet rum. There’s also a range of uses for coconut milk beyond the piña colada. In Brazil, for example, they use this staple to make two of the country’s most popular drinks — the eggnog-esque coquito con ron and the batida de coco, a creamy fruit smoothie spiked with cachaça, a sugar-cane spirit. Its potential applications are practically infinite in the drinks world, something demonstrated by a recent wave of bartenders working with coconut milk to put southeast Asian twists on classic tropical cocktails.

Like bartender Katie McDonald of Clive’s Classic Lounge in Victoria, BC, who is especially keen about Thai flavours, thanks to her time spent living there and working at a bar called Carlito’s.

“I’ll always remember this one standout drink we had called the Thailander,” says McDonald. “Because it was spicy and rich, it didn’t sell terribly well. But I loved that it seemed like a cold version of tom kha gai — coconut soup.”

When she began working at Clive’s nearly two years ago, McDonald set her mind to making a lighter and more contemporary version of the slushy tropical drink. But the challenge, with top-grade coconut milk (the version that comes in a brown label) is that it’s rich (over 20 per cent fat) and separates very easily, making it hard to work with. McDonald loves a challenge, though, and, after considerable effort, hit on the idea of making a coconut syrup for her tribute to Southeast Asia, the Carl of Thailand.

carl of Thailand

3 inches chopped lemongrass
1 medium-sized kaffir lime leaf
2 oz Flor de Caña five-year-old rum
1/2 oz fresh lime juice
1/2 oz homemade coconut syrup (see below)
1/4 oz Thai chili vinegar (see below)

Vigorously muddle lemongrass and kaffir leaf. Shake all ingredients with ice and double-strain into a small coupe. Garnish with a floating kaffir leaf and a red Thai chili.

coconut syrup

1 cup coconut milk (with fat)
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 pinch salt

Bring these ingredients to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes.

thai chili vinegar

Chop 4 red Thai chilies and add to full bottle of seasoned rice wine vinegar. Leave overnight and then strain chilies out.


Christine Sismondo is a National Magazine Award-Winning drinks columnist and the author of Mondo Cocktail: A Shaken and Stirred History as well as America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops.

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