Behind the Bar

Add Depth and Sweetness to Your Cocktails With Panela

Rum lemonade cocktail
The Colombian Lemonade at Maite adds both depth and sweetness to rum, lulo (a Colombian citrus) and lime by using panela.

You’ve likely seen small, brown discs of panela in your grocer’s baking aisle. It’s not just another version of brown sugar; it’s an unrefined whole cane sugar, which is super-popular in Latin America. It goes by a few names: panela in Colombia, piloncillo in Mexico and tapa de dulce in Costa Rica, among others. Panela is most prevalent in Colombia, where it’s used in drinks like the simple aguapanela, a simple sweet beverage of water and panela with lime. The unrefined, deep flavor of panela can be reminiscent of an aged rum, making it perfect for cocktail applications.

As chef and bar manager at Maite in Brooklyn, Ella Schmidt has been using it both in the kitchen and behind the bar. For her, it was a natural decision — she’s Colombian. “We put it on everything in Colombia. We don’t really use white sugar,” she tells me. “In the small towns, it’s all panela.” Their strawberry-rhubarb margarita combines the rich flavor of panela with tequila, lime, agave and strawberry, while a rum lemonade brings together lulo (a Colombian citrus) and lime. “It adds almost like a caramel sweetness to things and it’s a lot better for you,” she says, because of its being less refined. “I don’t think that many people know what it is, but do they love it and are they interested in it? Yes. I get a lot of questions about it.”

Disks of panela. You may have spotted panela, also known as piloncillo, on shelves in your grocery store. It’s not just another version of brown sugar; it’s an unrefined whole cane sugar, which is super-popular in Latin America. The unrefined, deep flavor of panela can be reminiscent of an aged rum, making it perfect for cocktail applications. Photo via iStock/ hemeroskopion.

For the cocktails, she makes a simple syrup in the classic way. When she uses it in a hot toddy, that syrup is spiced with cloves, bay leaves and cinnamon sticks. In Colombia, she says, you drink panela and rum everywhere; their shared spiciness makes it a no-brainer. Rye also works. “Since rye isn’t as sweet as bourbon,” she says, “the panela comes in and gives it that sweet, caramel flavor. They just complement each other.”

Bartender Jay Schroeder is momentarily confused whenever you say “panela” to him — he thinks you’re referring to cheese. That’s because Schroeder’s spent his career working in Mexican cuisine, at Rick Bayless’s Frontera in Chicago and now at Mezcaleria Las Flores, where it’s known as piloncillo. “I don’t think it’s ever been something that I’ve had to think outside the box on,” Schroeder says. “Looking at piloncillo, as I know it, it just goes hand in hand with so many confectionery things in Mexico.”

He points to its richness as a reason he loves to use it in cocktails. “Anytime we’re able to use a sweetener that has depth of flavor, that’s a holy grail,” he says, “to be able to add depth and complexity in a way that we would otherwise not get from a sweetener.” Schroeder makes a simple syrup with it and other flavors, similar to Schmidt’s.

One of his favorites is a Christmas beer cocktail he did at Frontera called Pastorela. It’s a Negra Modelo cocktail with piloncillo syrup, ancho chile and añejo tequila. “Piloncillo is the centerpiece of that cocktail. You’ve got the carbonation from the beer, and it’s got this immense depth from all that molasses flavor that all the other ingredients warm up around,” he says. As far as using it with spirits, he thinks it would work with an aged cachaça, bourbon or rye, in addition to the Mexican spirits with which he’s accustomed to working.

The takeaway: If you’ve seen those discs and been intrigued, but haven’t known what you’d do with them, make a syrup and experiment. It would be hard to go wrong.

Strawberry rhubarb margarita Maite's Strawberry Rhubarb Margarita is sweetened with panela, which adds a distinctive depth that plays well with the drink's tartness.

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