Lychee Martinis rose to prominence in the 1990s and have become a staple on cocktail menus at many Asian-themed restaurants and bars. Now, the Chinese lychee fruit is growing up. Over the last couple years creative bartenders have moved the lychee beyond its flagship vodka- based martini and into a slew of other drinks, from margari- tas to caipirinhas to spritzes. Floral and fragrant, lychee has become a sweet addition behind many bars.
Verlaine Bar & Lounge on New York City’s Lower East Side has been a haven for lychee lovers for more than 20 years. Co-owner Gary Weingarten estimates that in any given week the bar serves more than 2,000 of its signature Lychee Martinis, made with Barton Natural Gluten Free vodka ($12). The drink has become so popular that Verlaine is working with Chicago firm The Beverage Incubators on a pre-mixed, canned sparkling version of the cocktail for retail sale.
“It’s been the main draw here for almost 21 years,” Weingarten says, adding that regulars at the venue simply say “I’ll have a lychee” to order the drink. “I find the lychee flavor has floral and citrusy notes, similar to elderflower. I love using it with simple syrup to cut the aftertaste or bitterness of alcohol. Of course, there’s always the lure of adding a fruit that’s normally classified as ‘exotic’ to the menu, too.”
Verlaine offers five lychee cocktails. Along with the signature martini, the bar serves a couple lychee sangrias and creative originals like the Spicy Smoked Lychee Martini ($14), made with Tanteo Jalapeño Tequila, Montelobos mezcal, lychee and pineapple juices, and passion fruit purée, topped with Japanese Kimchi powder, and the Lychee Aperol Spritz ($13), comprising Aperol and lychee syrup, topped with Freixenet Brut Cava. “The lychee flavor goes well with vodka, gin, Tequila, and mezcal,” Weingarten says. “Mixed with sparkling wine or into a spritzer, the taste is sublime. We mostly use lychee juices and canned lychee fruit. We wish we could garnish drinks with fresh lychee, but since we sell thousands every week it’s not sustainable.”
In Philadelphia, the Japanese restaurant Ramen Bar offers a Grey Goose vodka-based lychee martini alongside the Lychee Mojito ($12), mixing Bacardi Superior rum with lychee and lime juices, mint, and simple syrup, garnished with a lychee. Chef and owner Dean Leevongcharoen says the sweet fruit is enjoyed a lot at his venue.
Similarly, in Atlanta, lychee is a natural fit within the bar program at Atlas and The Garden Room adjacent to the St. Regis Atlanta hotel in the city’s Buckhead neighborhood. The Garden Room bar offers the I Love Lychee ($19), mixing Ketel One vodka and Giffard Lichi-Li liqueur with house-made lychee emulsion, lemon juice, and egg white, and the Lychee-Berry Caipirinha ($18), blending Novo Fogo Silver Cachaça with muddled lychee, strawberry, lime, and sugar. “Our guests love lychee,” says bar manager Cole Johnson. “The floral and aromatic flavor is a perfect fit in our cocktail program at The Garden Room.”
Johnson makes the lychee emulsion by thoroughly blending pitted lychees to create a distinct flavor. He notes that using the whole fruit and skin in the blend provides a slight vegetal quality. The Garden Room’s lychee drinks are very popular with women, Johnson adds, though men are starting to enjoy the cocktails as well. “Lychee is wonderful because it’s both distinct and mild at the same time,” he says. “It adds a subtle sweetness and can act as either the main character or a supporting actor in drinks. Lychee has many applications and always adds something to the mix, and it definitely has room to grow.”