“Whole, almond or oat?” is a standard question at the coffee counter. But it’s one that’s increasingly infiltrating the bar world, too.
But of the bevy of the alternative milks on the market, oat milk has gained the largest foothold at bars for its ability to add light texture and a slightly sweet flavor to drinks.
“Using dairy behind the bar is challenging. It spoils quickly [and] it leaves a filmy layer on glass,” explains Aneka Saxon, director of beverage development at Chicago restaurant Machine. While she frequently turns to coconut milk as an alternative to dairy in a variety of drinks—particularly those with a tropical feel—oat milk is her preferred pour for the Alco’hall & Oates cocktail, a mixture of Cocoa Puff–infused oat milk, bourbon and Meletti Cioccolato, which reads likes like an adult version of chocolate milk.
“Oat milk has a beautiful, silky texture that I enjoy,” Saxon says. “It really brings out a layer in a cocktail where people are thinking about the texture of their drink as well as the flavor.”
The natural lightness of oat milk is precisely the characteristic that attracts some bartenders to use it even when they’re not explicitly seeking vegan alternatives. “Regular dairy has a natural smoothness that’s hard to duplicate, but with that smoothness comes weight,” notes Lee Zaremba, beverage director of Chicago-based Boka Restaurant Group. “Oat milk is a bit lighter, and has the most pleasing texture compared to other alternative milks.”
In configuring the menu for Lazy Bird, which opened in April in the West Loop’s Hoxton hotel, Zaremba tested various nondairy alternatives, including cashew, almond and coconut milks. While the last had a desirable texture, it was also “heavy,” and lent a distinctive coconut flavor that can be difficult to pair.
By comparison, oat milk’s flavor is more neutral and is often described as sweeter than traditional dairy, with a subtle floral quality, which is more consistent from batch to batch.
Oat milk wound up being the best solution for his baroque take on the Grasshopper. The traditional version, made with cream, crème de menthe and crème de cacao, “seems like a gut bomb sometimes,” says Zaremba. While he wanted to appeal to lactose-intolerant guests, he also was hoping to make the drink more palatable and complex.
In the end, he ripped apart almost every element of the original, adding a housemade carob syrup for roasty, cocoa-like sweetness, and pairing the crème de menthe with mentholated Fernet Branca. “The drink is a fucking Frankenstein,” Zaremba says, but it accomplished his goal to build a nondairy Grasshopper that still rings true to the original.
Similarly, at Bacchus Bar in Portland’s Kimpton hotel, oat milk was a deliberate choice to keep a fruitcake-inspired holiday cocktail vegan-friendly. “Oat milk is the best by far in terms of taste and consistency,” says lead bartender Nathan Elliott. For his Last Minute Gift cocktail, he steeps the oat milk overnight with baking spices, then shakes the blend with Scotch, orange liqueur, Cherry Heering and a dash of walnut bitters to yield a drink that hits all the right warming orange-and-spice notes.
Sometimes, the research and development that goes along with the job seeps over into personal beverage consumption. After testing all the various alt-milks, Zaremba now stirs oat milk into his daily coffee, preferring it over almond or soy milks, which have a tendency to separate. “Oat milk has become my jam,” he says.