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The Bumpy Gourd That’s Winning Over Bartenders

Austin Hennelly, the 35-year-old bar director at Kato, a Taiwanese restaurant in Los Angeles, likens tasting bitter melon to “going down the drop of a roller coaster.” Sipping the fruit’s juice — which is the star ingredient in his Garden Tonic, a mocktail he considers the best drink on Kato’s menu — is, he says, “a little bit unpleasant and maybe a little bit scary, but it’s exhilarating, and then you just want to do it again.”

Bitter melon, which is actually a member of the gourd family, has long been a staple of Asian, African and Caribbean cuisines. The Chinese variety is a luminous cactus green with rounded ends and furrows. The Indian version is darker and covered in jagged spikes. Both types are almost always eaten cooked and have the firm bite of sautéed bell pepper with a grassy taste that gives way to a supremely bitter, medicinal tang — like a pain-relief pill that’s lost its coating. Now, mixologists are harnessing that extreme flavor to add punch and balance to cocktails.

Bitter melon (left) is arguably the bitterest food in the world. The Bitter Melon Collins (right) served at COA, a Hong Kong cocktail bar, includes the white variety of the fruit.Credit…From left: Getty Images; Courtesy of COA Hong Kong

At the Chinese-Irish lounge Jade & Clover in Manhattan’s Chinatown, the Bitter Sweet is a fresher take on the Jungle Bird, a Tiki classic, with bitter melon replacing Campari. “I juice it — skin, seeds and all,” says bartender Gelo Honrade, 40, who blends the slurry with pineapple and orange juices and Mekhong rum. The result: a sweet start followed by a finish reminiscent of cold-pressed kale. Like that of a Negroni, its pungent tail demands another sip to find the sweet hit again.

At COA, a cocktail bar in Hong Kong specializing in agave spirits, founder Jay Khan, 38, opts for the less common, slightly mellower white bitter melon in his Bitter Melon Collins. “We want to balance interesting and approachable,” he says. At Rangoon, a Burmese restaurant in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, the chef Myo Moe, 51, muddles slices of Chinese bitter melon in her Satt Kha, a spicy twist on a vodka mule that’s the best-selling drink on the menu. And at Watson in Vancouver, the bar manager, Jordan Coelho, 29, makes his own version of Campari out of dried bitter melon and goji berries for his rum-based riff on a Negroni, the Valley of Fear, which arrives under a cloud of smoked oak.

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