An exotic fruit called the lychee (pronounced lee'chee) is a brilliant cocktail mixer. It offers a taste that is soft, floral, and distinctly unique. Though it's not the most common bottle in the liquor store, a number of brands produce beautiful lychee liqueurs so you can mix up a lychee martini and other stunning cocktails with ease.
What Is a Lychee?
The lychee nut is a rare, sub-tropical Asian fruit that grows on a 20- to 40-foot tall lychee tree with smooth gray bark and dark green leaves. Lychee nuts are similar in shape to a strawberry, though they have a red, bumpy outer shell that is about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. The shell protects the sweet, sticky, white fruit that holds a seed.
That little white globe of fleshy fruit is the object of desire in food and drinks. It has a sweet, juicy flavor and aroma that's incomparable to any other fruit.
The lychee is also known as lichee, litchi, and alligator strawberry (a name alluding to its familiar shape and rough shell).
The Many Uses of Lychee
For over 2,000 years, the lychee fruit has been used for a variety of purposes throughout Asian culture. It is a symbol of love and romance for the Chinese because of it's red, heart-shaped shell. With more vitamin C than an orange or lemon, lychees are a natural, healthy choice for adding sweet fruit flavors to desserts, salads, sweet and sour sauce, stir-fry, and poultry dishes.
Lychee can be found canned in syrup at most Asian food markets. If the season is right (typically June and July), lychee can also be found fresh. The process of preparing fresh lychee is a bit tedious but the taste is worth the effort.
Lychee as a Cocktail Mixer
Lychee really started to make a splash on the cocktail scene in the mid-2000s. Before that, if you wanted a lychee martini you needed to use the hard-to-find fruit itself to create a juice, infusion, or puree.
Thankfully, a few distilled spirit producers caught on to the trend and began to blend the fruit into some sweet liqueurs. This has opened up a new world of Asian-inspired cocktails to the more drinkers throughout the world.
Lychee liqueurs are typically clear or pale pink (the color of rosé wine). It's rare, but a few are a deep, rose-like red, most likely due to coloring additives.
As an alternative to the commercial options, you can also make your own lychee syrup or liqueur. Both are very easy from either the canned or fresh fruit.
Lychee Flavor Pairings
The distinct flavor (often likened to grapes, strawberries, and watermelon), pairs well with a variety of mixers. Lychee's best pairings are coconut, ginger, lime, orange, raspberry, and tangerine. You can also explore how well it works in combination with other berries and citrus, kiwi, melon (especially honeydew), mango, passion fruit, pineapple, and rose.
When it comes to liquor, you'll find many lychee cocktails that feature vodka and rum. It's also ideal for sake drinks as well as other fruit-based spirits like Midori. The soft flavor means lychee will likely not stand up to heavy flavors or dark spirits, so keep things light and you'll enjoy some amazing cocktails.
The lychee martini is the most popular cocktail to feature the fruit and it's a great place to begin. Don't stop there, though, because there are many fascinating recipes to explore.
Try the red lotus, a beautiful vodka-cranberry drink accented with lychee. The lagoon punch is just as easy, pairing lychee liqueur with blue curaçao and seltzer for a refreshing drink. And, for a shot that's almost too good to slam, the crouching tiger is ideal, simply mixing the liqueur with an equal part of tequila.
While the Amarula & Eve recipe suggests lychee juice, the fruit liqueur may actually be easier to find and it makes a perfect substitute. Likewise, a recipe like the lotus blossom muddles the fruit then mixes it with pear vodka and sake, though a short pour of lychee liqueur can only improve that mix.
Use these recipes as a starting point in your lychee adventures. The fruit has yet to be mixed to its fullest potential, so between the pairing suggestions and the cocktail recipes, you'll find lots of inspiration for your own creations.
Finding Lychee Liqueurs
Lychee is not the most popular flavored liqueur on the worldwide market, but it is growing and quite a few brands offer it. You may have to hunt it down at larger or specialty liquor stores that offer a greater selection. Online stores are a great option if liquor is legal to ship to where you live.
In the decade or so that lychee liqueur has gained a greater showcase in the modern bar, many brands have come and gone. Typically, those that last are produced by the big liquor companies because the competition is very tough on this flavor. While you should be able to find labels like Soho, Kwai Fe, Giffard, and Bols, don't hesitate to pick up an unknown brand of lychee liqueur. There are some great surprises that are an absolute delight to drink.
Soho Lychee Liqueur
Soho is one of the best-known and widely distributed spirits of this flavor. It is distilled in France using the best natural Asian lychees available. The clarity of the transparent liqueur is deceptive to the array of sweet, natural flavors it contains. It is bottled at 21 percent ABV (42 proof) and is reasonably priced.
Kwai Feh Lychee Liqueur
Produced by the liqueur-producing giant DeKuyper, Kwai Feh is a beautiful light pink liqueur. Produced in the Netherlands, it offers a full, fresh taste of lychee that is delicious and tempting. It's competitively priced and bottled at 20 percent ABV (40 proof).
Giffard Lichi-Li Liqueur
Giffard is one of the premium liqueur producers to look for when you want the best cocktails. Their Lichi-Li is a beautifully perfumy lychee-flavored offering with a pale pink color and hint of sweet vanilla. You'll spend a few extra dollars on this 18 percent ABV (36 proof) bottle, though the upgrade is definitely worthwhile.
Bols Lychee Liqueur
Bols is also a well-known brand that produces some very fine tasting and affordable liqueurs that you can rely on. Though it's not as common as some of their more popular flavors, Bols Lychee is definitely worth seeking out. The liqueur is clear and bottled at a pleasing 17 percent ABV (34 proof). It offers the sweet taste of lychee via what the company claims is a special extraction process.