Have you encountered a clarified cocktail yet? As of a couple days ago, I had not. But the folks at Chowhound were interested in breaking down the libation for its readers, and I was happy to look into the trend now used by some of the hottest bartenders around: clarification. Clarification refers to the process by which you turn liquid clearer by removing any solid components that may still be in it. For alcohol, specifically, clarification is accomplished via distillation. For mixed drinks or punches, clarification happens a bit differently.
To get the skinny, I enlisted the help of Scott Stroemer, Head Bartender/Chief Mixologist at Pacific Standard Time, a One Off Hospitality/Underscore Hospitality spot that brings open-hearth California-style cooking to Chicago’s River North neighborhood. We met and he set me up with two drinks off their menu: 1) Clarified Rum Punch; and 2) Negroni Bianco.
The clarified rum punch blew me away. Served in an old-fashioned glass, sans garnish, with one large ice cube, the drink was unassuming in appearance, but packed with flavors that complement without overpowering. It was clear. It was smooth. It was balanced. It had the perfect blends of citrus, spice, sweet, and bitter. Everything seemed to be in proper proportion. It was easy to see why this was, as Scott shared, the most re-ordered drink in the restaurant. As for the Negroni Bianco, it was also unassuming in appearance. Looking like ice water, garnished with a single citrus wedge, there was nothing to it, visually. But upon taking a sip, you realize this cocktail is more than meets the eye. Hints of pine hit you first, followed by sweetness, before a bitter finale. These flavors were more successive, and seemed to take turns rather than blend together.
Absolutely amazed by that rum punch, I needed to know more. Here’s what Scott had to say:
When folks talk about clarified drinks, what are they talking about? The alcohol? The mixers? Something else?
I think largely it’s clarified cocktails, and specifically variations of English Milk Punch. At PST it certainly means our seasonal “Clarified Rum Punch.” That said, I’ve seen clarified Bloody Marys, and drank a clear daiquiri (using lime oleo sacrum and citric acid instead of lime juice and sugar) that blew me away. [Our] White Negroni (or Negroni Bianco) touches on the appeal of a drink that looks innocent enough but packs the bitter/sweet/botanical blast of the crimson Negroni we all are used to.
What’s your bartending philosophy/style?
Aside from the hospitality of it all (I don’t think the world needs another hospitality soapbox speech), bar-tend with purpose. A hidden, experimental cocktail club should be bleeding edge, a farm-to-table family style restaurant should give that same attention to local ingredients and producers on the back bar and on the cocktail menu. For PST, the bar and cocktail menu are a part of the experience. A cocktail here should start the meal, and should awaken the appetite—what the Italians call the aperitivo. I lean towards lower-proof offerings, especially in the warmer months, using in-season fruits, spices, vegetables, and herbs from the same farmers and vendors that our culinary team uses.
What’s the purpose of clarifying?
For PST’s Rum Punch, three [things]: 1) When clarifying with milk, the drink inherits a silky roundness from the milk acids that pass through. There’s a creaminess. There’s a body and a weight that you don’t normally get in a rum cocktail. 2) Stability. Straining all of the solids means the punch will keep longer. 3) Presentation. It’s a sexy drink that’s packed with flavors. Citrus, tannins from the tea, creaminess from the milk, grassy funk from the Mexican rum. The first sip usually brightens the face of the lucky imbiber.
Are more bartenders moving towards clarified cocktails?
I think so. It’s one of those bartender rites of passage, making a good clear milk punch. Like making a decent Malort cocktail, many will try but few will succeed.
How does one clarify a drink? Are there different methods?
For milk punch, it’s the magic of mixing [the strained mixture of punch] with boiling milk and lemon (or lime) juice. [The milk will curdle and the solids will coagulate. Then, you strain it with] a few layers of cheesecloth, and repeat until clear.
How labor intensive is clarification?
It’s really not, it’s just a matter of time. You’ll have to strain it off a couple times for it to clear.
What’s the biggest challenge of clarification?
It’s a lot to figure out in the beginning. A lot of trial and error. Once you get the base of it, you can start swapping out flavors. It’s still basically the same, but once you have the golden ratio, you can start playing with it. [For example,] with the clarified rum punch, we went from pineapple, to blackberry, to, now, passionfruit—because passionfruit is great in the winter, and it’s begging to be paired with rum. [For a restaurant,] the challenge was getting it scaled up. [Since the rum punch takes a couple days to make], if we run out today, we run out for a couple of days. The biggest challenge is production. We got it down, now, though.
When and where did clarifying originate?
The recipe we first used at PST came from Jerry Thomas’ 1862 Bartender’s Guide. I believe the practice is traced back to the late 1700’s. The first Clarified Milk Punch I ever had was at The Violet Hour around 2008.
Jerry Thomas Bartenders Guide 1862 Reprint: How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon Vivant's Companion, $15.98 on Amazon
A true classic, reprinted in the original hardback style.
When did you start using clarification?
Prior to working here, I ran the bar at Nico. We used to do a cocktail of the day, so we would kick around ideas of forgotten classics. I started playing around with it there, and brought it over [to PST]. I think milk punch is pretty cool. Plus, it draws so far back into the history of cocktail making, [yet] can still be presented in a hip and cool way.
If you’re inclined to serve punch at your holiday party this year, I have one word for you. Clarification. Your guests won’t know what hit ‘em, but they’ll sure be happy they stopped by. Serving a clarified rum punch, like the one at PST, can take your party from pedestrian to primo. And just in case you wanted to use the same recipe Scott’s curated over years of plying his trade, he’s been gracious enough to share it!
Clarified Rum Punch #2
From Scott Stroemer of Pacific Standard Time
(reprinted with permission of Scott Stroemer)
- 2 bottles Gustoso Rhum
- 1 bottle Caña Brava 7 year
- 4 ounces Rittenhouse rye
- 8 ounces Velvet Falernum
- 6 ounces Luxardo Bitter Bianco
- 4 ounces Wolfberger Ginger Amer
- 4 ounces BT Pimento Dram
- 2 ounces Angostura bitters
- 12 ounces lemon juice
- 6 ounces passionfruit puree
- 2 sticks cinnamon
- 2 star anise
- 2 tablespoons coriander
- 16 ounces Green Almondine, brewed strong
- 16 ounces sugar
- 30 ounces milk
- 6 ounces lemon juice
- Toast spices and coarsely grind with a mortar and pestle.
- Add all ingredients except 30 ounces milk and 6 ounces lemon juice to a large cambro and refrigerate for 48 hours.
- To clarify, bring the milk to a boil. Add the boiling milk and 6 ounces lemon juice to the strained mixture—the milk will curdle and the solids will coagulate.
- Strain the liquid a little at a time through a fine chinois lined with a coffee filter, replacing the coffee filter if it becomes too thickly layered with milk solids.
- Pour into a clean container, cover and refrigerate overnight to give the remaining milk solids time to settle.
- Ladle the clarified punch into a clean container, taking care not to disturb the solids at the bottom.
- Strain again, if desired.
Related Video: How to Make Pecan Milk Punch
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Header image courtesy of Colin Price.