A clear cocktail is a clear cocktail is a clear cocktail. The Miami Vice, unfrozen and stripped of its layers, is served in a rocks glass over a crystal-clear ice cube at Chopper in Nashville. Scotch, milky oolong tea and oats appear translucent and silky rather than opaque and creamy in the Whisky for Breakfast at Ruby in Copenhagen. An Espresso Martini arrives colorless, an un-Martini served in a Martini glass and accompanied by chocolate-covered almonds disguised as olives for the Clarified Espresso Martini at Diversión in Houston. A clear cocktail is a clear cocktail is a clear cocktail. They are always their limpid selves, and these days their nonexistent presence is everywhere.
Clarification—the act of rendering a component of a cocktail, or the entire cocktail itself, clear—began gaining traction in the bar world in the early 2000s. During that era’s reboots of Golden Age saloons and Prohibition-era speakeasies, clarified milk punches were a felicitous nod to a centuries-old technique practiced by Jerry Thomas, the sire of the modern cocktail movement. Clarified Gimlets and Daiquiris upended holy shaking scripture. With clarified lime juice, you now could—and should—stir a typically shaken cocktail breed.
Twenty years or so on, even as bartenders debate which drinks are best suited to the technique, clarification continues to wiggle its crystalline phalanges across the globe: from Goa, India, where not too long ago, half the sales at the bar Tesouro were from a clarified take on peanut butter and jelly, to Jelas in New York City, a bar that exclusively serves clarified cocktails. Clarification has even hit the ready-to-drink sphere.
The endgame is always the same: Create and serve a transparent drink. That liquid negation speaks legion. A clarified drink dazzles; it confounds as it flabbergasts. Drinkers remain enthralled, no matter how many iterations they encounter. For bartenders these days, a clarified cocktail can also be a repudiation of the classic cocktail’s hegemonic stranglehold on the standard bar menu. Clarity, it seems, is the great equalizer. A blank, er, clear, slate for artful subversion.
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“Clarification allows you to be a minimalist and a maximalist in a way no other technique does,” says Joshua Gandee, bartender and host of the “No Proof” podcast. You could pack a battalion of ingredients into a single drink or foreground a couple, and both, if clarified, would arrive pristine. So much power and opportunity born from the act of elimination.
A clarity of purpose alongside clarity as its own objective is how clarification techniques were popularized during the 2000s. Dave Arnold, bar owner, author of Liquid Intelligence and all-around dean of cocktail clarification, remembers that his journey into the cloudless trenches began with one of the simplest drinks: the G&T. “It all started with me trying to find the best way to clarify lime juice for my version of a Gin & Tonic,” he recalls. “Best,” for Arnold, meant better carbonation, hence, clarified lime juice. “That problem took a long time to solve to my satisfaction—and I got a bunch of other techniques out of that process.” Those clarification techniques include using gelatin, agar-agar, milk, wine-fining agents and eventually a centrifuge. The centrifuge became so central to Arnold’s clarification approach that he birthed the Spinzall, a modestly priced and modestly sized alternative to an extravagant industrial centrifuge.
Today, at Aragosta in a remote cove on Deer Isle in Maine, there may not be a Spinzall in sight, but clarification abounds. The restaurant’s isolated, breathtaking setting does the talking, and, as such, Aragosta’s general manager and bar director Daniel Marchese prefers the restaurant’s cocktails demure. “I am aesthetically a fan of neat and tidy. Not a maximalist,” he says. For his Heatweaver, Marchese uses milk clarification to meld mezcal, red pepper juice, tomato juice, bird’s eye chile tincture, toasted almond syrup and sherry vinegar into a pellucid incarnation of a Bloody Mary. “It is a savory drink. But it doesn’t drink murky like a Bloody Mary does.”
You can go big with clarification, subverting guests’ expectations with grandiloquence: Devin Courtney’s aforementioned Clarified Espresso Martini, for instance, with its sidecar of chocolate-covered almonds masquerading as green olives alongside a crystal-clear take on the caffeinated modern classic. You can be subdued with clarification, as Marchese demonstrates at Aragosta by distilling flavors and presentation to an unalloyed state. Or you can lighten a velvety amalgam of opposing, complementary flavors, as LP O’Brien, owner of LP Drinks, does with the combination of dark rum, and banana and coffee liqueurs in her Just Smell Those Skyscrapers. With clarification, it seems, there is an entry point for every style of bartender to appeal to every type of palate.
“The endgame is always the same: Create and serve a transparent drink. That liquid negation speaks legion. A clarified drink dazzles; it confounds as it flabbergasts. Drinkers remain enthralled, no matter how many iterations they encounter.”
If bartenders remain capable of being impressed by a transparent cocktail, they are a downright epiphany to the average drinker. “People are going to bars like ours to have a unique experience,” says Diversión’s Courtney. “Because almost any bar—whether it’s nice or a little lower-brow—can make a decent classic cocktail at this point.” Though clarification techniques are hardly new, in practice, many bars have only recently instated the clarified cocktail as a menu requirement.
I ask Arnold, who has witnessed the clarification boom over the past two decades, why he thinks the technique is prominent in 2023. The pandemic, he insists. “You had three years of noncontinuity,” he observes. “In the bar world, there’s a lot of change; it’s a young business.” Three years without mentoring and gatekeeping from the old guard. Three years of bored bartenders and fidgety guests snowballing into this moment’s feverish obsession with clarification’s signature striptease.
O’Brien thinks that with thoughtful execution, the clear skies are the limit. It is not enough to clarify for the sake of clarification alone. Instead, the result needs to justify the erasure. “Go back to the drawing board if it isn’t your version of perfect,” O’Brien says. “If you can justify every decision you make, the opportunities with clarification are endless.”