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Drink Science With Team Lyan: The Best Way to Carbonate Your Cocktail

A knock-out favorite at London’s White Lyan, the Bay Cosmo was among the bar's first "force-carbonated" cocktails. Here, the team offers advice and recipes for carbonating drinks at home.

How to Carbonate Cocktails

The pop of a Champagne cork. The slow hiss of a beer bottle opening. The celebratory sound of pent-up carbon dioxide being released from a bottle is as commonplace as a pint of lager. 

As it applies to mixed drinks, the use of carbonation in cocktails is as old as the practice itself. But bubbles have traditionally come by way of seltzer, beer, sparkling wine or soda as a means of lengthening a drink. What about achieving fizz without the addition of these reliable mixers?

There are two distinct ways of carbonating a cocktail, both of them borrowed from sparkling wine. The first is achieved by fermentation under pressure. This is how Champagne is made and was originally “discovered” by Christopher Merret, an Englishman who wrote about it in 1662. In short: take some yeasty liquid, add some sugar and keep it bottled under increasing pressure until it’s about to explode.

The second method is forced carbonation. This involves filling a strong container with your drink, plus carbon dioxide. Champagne’s rogue cousins such as prosecco and cava sometimes employ this method, on a larger scale, to ensure speed and consistency.

At White Lyan, we experimented with both methods to great success. Our favorite fermented cocktail, Le Fizz, began as a mixture of Amalfi lemon juice with grape juice, which was fermented with Champagne yeast and finished in a Champagne bottle to an ABV of 14 percent. Designed to taste like lemon sparkling wine, the bottles had that same incomparable pop when opened. By contrast, our Bay Cosmo—a mix of Mr Lyan Vodka, cranberry and bay leaf cordial and grapefruit—was made in 18-liter Cornelius kegs, wherein we force-carbonated nearly 80 units (served individually in 200ml bottles) at a time. We used this high-volume method to prepare our “Hi-Balls” section, which included five to six force-carbonated drinks and was a regular menu fixture at White Lyan.

While fermenting cocktails at home is certainly doable, there’s no argument that force carbonation is the more foolproof approach for home bartenders, as it is both faster and leaves less room for error. Below are our best practices for carbonating cocktails at home, along with three recipes.

The Supplies

*There is also the other option of using a Sodastream, but more often than not this results in sticky walls and ceilings rather than an adequately fizzy cocktail. Unless you’re lucky enough to have one of the secret squirrel machines still in development, stick to the iSi.

The Rules

Mind the proof. Carbon dioxide will not dissolve in alcohol as well as in water. That’s not to say you can’t make Scotch fizzy, it’s just a hell of a lot harder. Consider this when you’re deciding on your recipe. The cut off point is about 15 percent ABV (think of the Negroni Sbagliato as a good starting point). Anything above this becomes difficult to work with, and the combination of bubbles and a higher proof isn’t particularly pleasant.

Keep it clear. It is very hard to keep cloudy liquids carbonated. All those bits that make the drink cloudy are swirling nucleation sites just waiting to make the carbon dioxide boil back out of solution. Each tiny little particle in the liquid is an angry agitator making the drink froth up, and once you get it fizzy, it’ll pour like a river of foam. So avoid syrups with lots of sediment or fruit purees, and consider replacing citrus with an acid solution, if possible.

Lower the sugar. How sweet a liquid is will also affect the final product. The more sugar is dissolved in the water, the less space there is for gas. Sugar will change the texture of the liquid and make it extra foamy due to an increase in surface tension. This isn’t to suggest that you forego sugar, just be aware of going too syrupy in texture. The same applies for other sweeteners like honey.

Chill it down. The most common mistake when force-carbonating a cocktail is doing so at too high a temperature. The closer the liquid is to freezing, the better. A fizzy drink is essentially regular liquid with carbon dioxide dissolved into it, much the same as salt water is water with salt dissolved into it. The relationship for gas is opposite to solids, however. Where you would normally heat liquid up to dissolve a solid, liquid needs to be cooled as much as possible to help dissolve gas.

The Step by Step

  1. Get your liquid very cold and funnel it into the siphon or whipper. If using a siphon, remove the long thin tube from the seal ring when closing the top. (Keep in mind that most soda siphons have a max fill volume, and that it’s important to adhere to it if you want to avoid a mess.)
  2. Charge the siphon or whipper with one carbon dioxide bulb, or two if the siphon will take the pressure.
  3. Shake it like mad.
  4. Put it in the fridge and forget about it for two hours minimum—overnight preferred.
  5. With your canister upright, very slowly release the pressure by pressing down the lever. Do this a little bit at a time over the course of half an hour or so, storing in the fridge in between.
  6. Once there’s very little pressure left, carefully open the top et voila, a fizzy cocktail is born.
  7. If you don’t want to drink it straight away, you can then very carefully (and slowly) pour your cocktail into a sealable bottle. A swing top beer bottle works well, but if the container is too big, the liquid will go flat quite quickly. Ideally you want to leave as little headspace as possible.

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Robin Honhold is the former venue manager for White Lyan and current operations manager for Mr. Lyan Ltd., where he is responsible for directing the business alongside owners Ryan Chetiyawaradana and Ian Griffiths.