No, it’s not your imagination: A number of San Francisco’s top bartenders have placed earthy purple piña coladas on their menus lately, flavoring and coloring the Puerto Rican cocktail with ube from the Philippines or sweet potatoes from Japan. And despite the very specific, nearly identical format of the drinks, a closer look at the ingredients at play and the bartenders’ inspirations for creating the eye-catching drinks reveals they actually don’t have all that much in common — beyond their amethyst hue and coconut cream.
Local bartender and owner Kevin Diedrich is responsible for two such ube coladas, one at Filipino-Californian restaurant Abacá, where he consulted on the cocktail menu, and the other at his own bar Kona’s Street Market. At the former, the Ube-Colada (rum, pineapple, ube-coconut cream) is a straightforward take on a piña colada (or, if you want to get technical, Painkiller, since aged rum is used) with added ube extract for both color and flavor. “For Abacá’s menu I wanted to keep it simple and very Filipino driven,” Diedrich wrote in an email while on a plane to the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival. “Chef Francis and his team are great friends and we’ve collaborated a lot in the past. I credit Francis and his team for helping me along with my journey of discovering Filipino flavors/culture.” Beyond ube, Diedrich’s drinks at Abaca include calamansi, pandan, jackfruit, and guyabano (soursop). He writes that part of his “R&D was to literally eat a ton of Filipino snacks, desserts, and kid candy.”
At Kona’s Street Market, the Red + Blue also includes aged rum, ube coconut cream, and pineapple, plus sherry, lime, and a creamy garnish. “The real flavor that ties it all together is the salted jackfruit whip. Salty, funky, creamy; just adds a ton of texture to the cocktail. Also I wanted to stack Filipino flavors onto it like a halo halo,” Diedrich writes, referring to the colorful dessert.
In both drinks, Diedrich didn’t muddle fresh ube but used McCormick ube extract, a flavor concentrate akin to vanilla extract used in tiny amounts. In previous drinks, Diedrich has used the extract in bitters and ube jam in a sour cocktail but notes that starting from scratch wouldn’t get him far. “Using fresh ube is insanely labor intensive and you still need extract to come close to the ube flavors people are looking for,” he writes.
At Wildhawk, co-bar manager Christian “Suzu” Suzki says he was also opposed to using extract, but similarly found the purple yam too grainy and with too high water content in its unprocessed form to be useful in drinks. He went with an extract purchased from In Her Purpose, but his starting point for the Mekong Sleepwalker was the concept of a scotch whisky colada, rather than the rum and piña variety. His drink uses a 12-year-old scotch whisky and a blend of two coconut milks, plus a lot of accent flavors.
Suzuki says he likes to build a story around a drink in development and find flavors to fit it, so his concept for the Mekong Sleepwalker was “an Asian business person walking around China and what he would drink.” The ube came in as a familiar flavor in East Asia. The rest of the drink development sounds trickier because as Suzuki says, somewhat blasphemously, “I don’t like citrus that much. It hurts my teeth and I just find it to be an overrated ingredient.” He tried the lime and pineapple typical of a piña colada but wound up choosing a combination of orange juice, rhum agricole (grassy French rum distilled from fermented sugar cane juice rather than molasses), and aloe liqueur to mimic the citrus acidity.
Suzuki says he’s long been familiar with ube extract from time spent in Japan and from online baking videos, but he used it in the drink more for its flavor. The color can’t be denied though: the combination comes out the soft grey-purple-blue color of horseshoe crab blood, contrasting with the bright green mint that garnishes the cocktail. It’s a stunner.
Bar Iris’ Bar Manager Ilya Romanov avoided ube altogether in his purple drink. He chose Okinawan sweet potato rather than the purple yam that is ube, though the two are fairly close both in flavor and color if not utility. Romanov roasts the sweet potatoes for four hours, then cooks them sous vide with oat milk — a method developed after some experimentation. This stabilizes the ingredients into a syrup that doesn’t separate in the glass, something Romanov was specifically seeking. “It took me a very long time because I would get a very good flavor but having a good consistency is a challenge,” Romanov says. “[In a typical piña colada], you get coconut residuals stacking up in the glass. In this drink, it doesn’t clump up in the glassware.”
If that seems a bit precious, welcome to Bar Iris. Romanov has assembled perhaps the fussiest and most labor-intensive bar ingredient prep routine north of True Laurel. “I wanted to highlight not just using Japanese ingredients but the mindset,” he says. “Every cocktail should have a different color, different flavor, different ingredients. Detail-oriented, have the minimalism shine. Clear, look pretty, not overdressed. I don’t like my garnishes to float around.”
As for the Okinawan potato, he says, “I wouldn’t have added anything purple just to make it purple.” The idea for his Okinawa colada was the island itself. “I was going for a cocktail indicative of certain place in Japan and I got obsessed with Okinawa and its history and I did a lot of research. I found a little distillery that makes a rum that’s really vegetal and funky and earthy. I didn’t want to cover the flavor of the rum, and built upon the earthiness. Instead of fruit I went with vegetables, and calamansi, not lime. I did some digging and found this Okinawan yam. Due to climate, they have a higher concentration of sugar and they get very caramelized after roasting them.”
The drink, which changes slightly in color batch-to-batch depending on the potatoes, is a bit more reddish than the others in this purple pack and has a slightly sandy texture from the potato starch. “Most people expect it to be sweet but it’s a bit earthy, and more interesting,” says Romanov.
The same could be said of all four of these purple coladas, most of which began from different concepts but ended up sharing a similar look. It could be synergy, or just plum coincidence.