Working with Dairy (and its Alternatives) at Your Bar

People have been mixing dairy with alcohol about as long as cocktails have been a part of drinking culture. How do you use it and how do you serve an increasingly dairy-adverse public?


It’s been exciting to witness the ascent of bar programs at distilleries around the U.S. It’s a good business decision, too—having a healthy, rotating cocktail lineup that attracts guests and brings them back for more is a good way to introduce your spirits to a wider audience and encourage brand loyalty.

However, with that growth comes certain challenges, such as designing the actual cocktails. Due to the licensing specifics of this kind of business, many states in the U.S. (but not all) don’t allow distilleries to serve alcohol that isn’t made on site. This essentially vetoes the use of standard cocktail ingredients like vermouth or crème de violette, unless you happen to make those already or are willing to get a bit crafty. Though it could easily be viewed as a limitation, many distillery bartenders treat this rule as an opportunity for creativity, focusing instead on innovative non-alc mixers. One popular way to play around with the texture of your drinks is through the use of dairy, which is the secret to legendary drinks like the Ramos Gin Fizz, White Russian, and the Grasshopper.

Dairy has been a valuable cocktail mixer for decades because of its indelible impact on texture. Heavier dairy products, like cream, have a greater quantity of coating fats and less lactose sugars. They coat the palate and quell the perception of alcohol, preserving the flavors on the tongue, often resulting in a rich texture and greater appreciation of flavor.

Adding dairy like milk or cream to a cocktail can be tricky, especially in the world of tiki. The combination of the acids in the citrus fruits and dairy can result in a gritty or clumpy cocktail due to curdling. This is especially true when using a lower-fat option like milk. When the pH of milk drops to 5.5 or lower, it neutralizes the charge of the protein groups, casein micelles, and the micelles no longer repel one another. A cascading effect occurs as the pH gets lower, causing the proteins to coagulate and form the curdled, chunky mess that most of us have experienced in a cocktail at least once before.

To avoid curdling in your cocktails, try to use heavy cream or crème fraiche in the cocktails that require both dairy and citrus. These products contain such little casein that the introduction of acid wouldn’t be able to result in any significant curdling. Remember to build your cocktail first, stir, then add the dairy last giving it a very good shake (several minutes for a Ramos Gin Fizz, according to Henry C. Ramos), and always use fresh dairy. A half ounce max should do to achieve the luxurious mouthfeel you’re looking for. Shaking or emulsifying with an electric blender is also good for avoiding clumps as the action breaks down the smaller protein chains of the dairy into evenly spread particles. The more balanced distribution of particles will allow the cocktail to sit for longer without fear of splitting.

Soured dairy like yogurt, kefir, and buttermilk makes for easier mixing. The existing sour component suits them more to citrus and fruit juices than plain milk or cream, though they still require a heavy shake to combine. Additionally, you get the added marketability of a probiotic in your cocktail, though—and I cannot stress this enough—there is no way to make a cocktail “healthy,” so please don’t label it as such.

Speaking of marketability, there are also ways to achieve the creamy texture that dairy affords without using any actual dairy. There are plenty of reasons why consumers are choosing to give dairy the cold shoulder—dietary requirements or allergies are often a catalyst to a dairy-free regiment, but some folks simply don’t enjoy the flavor or texture of animal milk or cream. Fortunately for you and them, milk alternatives work really well in most dairy cocktails due to their rich, creamy texture, with oat, cashew, and almond milk being particular favorites among bartenders. Cashew milk is an excellent substitute to make a dairy-free White Russian as it has a relatively neutral taste and luscious texture. Opt for almond milk the next time you make a Milk Punch at your bar; you’ll find its slight nutty taste is a perfect compliment to the nutmeg. Oat milk has become very popular recently, cropping up in kitchens and bars across the country. Its thick consistency and pleasant flavor lends it to classics like a Tiger’s Milk or eggnog. Flavor profiles and sweetness levels tend to vary amongst non-dairy milk products, so be sure to experiment with them accordingly to find the right fit for your cocktail.

Of course, if you’re making tiki cocktails, the addition of coconut milk or cream can almost never steer you wrong. The flavor adds to the richness of the beverage and plays well with the fruit notes present in the drink. Egg whites, though not dairy, can also be a put-off to vegan drinkers, so consider using aquafaba (a chickpea liquid) for sours and fizzes instead. It has the same emulsifying and foaming properties that have made egg whites an essential additive to cocktails for decades. Don’t worry about the smell or taste—the former evaporates and the latter neutralizes during mixing or shaking.

Distillery bartenders face a growing list of unique challenges, but they can still make delicious and innovative cocktails for their guests to enjoy. The world of non-alc mixers is vast and can be explored for a lot less money than their alcoholic alternatives. Hopefully this short primer encourages the use of dairy and its substitutes in more distillery bar programs, and happy mixing!

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