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Drink Science With Team Lyan: How to Use Dairy in Cocktails

Texture has long been a key motivator for mixing dairy into cocktails. Here, the team behind London's Dandelyan and Cub on how to incorporate milk, cheese, whey and more into drinks.

Dairy has a long standing in historic and classic drink recipes. When Andy Gemmel and Wayne Collins put together their seminal “seven families” cocktail course in 2008—a bartender education program on historic cocktail “DNA”—it shaped a generation of European bartenders. With the milk punch as one of the root formulae, the use of dairy continued to be used in their trainings, and has since been referenced and explored through milk punches, dairy flips, batidas and clarified milk punches. 

The reasons for incorporating dairy into cocktails are many, but texture is one of the key motivators. Dairy products, particularly cream—which has a greater collection of the coating fats, and a lower percentage of lactose sugars—coat the palate and suppress alcohol perception; this lends not only a luxurious mouthfeel, but holds flavors on the palate, too. For example, in many ways, a Brandy Milk Punch is a version of a shaken Old-Fashioned, but the addition of dairy lifts more fruitiness from the spirit, rather than the butterscotch-spice of the stirred, dairy-free version.

This idea been explored through new renditions on classic milk punches and dairy flips but also, increasingly, within a new canon of thoroughly modern dairy drinks. Today, you can find cocktails that are built with everything from sheep’s milk yogurt to chocolate milk “washed” mezcal to, in our case, whey, kefir, buttermilk and more. Here’s a look at how we incorporate each, and how you can do the same at home.

Milk + Cream

It’s amazing how little cream or milk you need to add to have a notable textural impact on a drink; a scant half-ounce of milk or cream will quickly round out other flavors. The problem is that milk proteins and the acid usually found in a cocktail aren’t best friends. The acid denatures the protein, which then forms into clumps, or curds. One way around the splitting is to break down these hydrocolloid components, and force them into an emulsification. Shaking is one method, as with baking, a hand blender or electric mixer is often very useful. This breaks the smaller protein chains into particles that can spread uniformly throughout the cocktail allowing for a much more enjoyable drinking experience. The mechanical method also creates a much finer dispersion of these particles, allowing the cocktail to sit, unbroken, much longer. (A hand-shaken drink, meanwhile, will often split quite quickly.) In our Colloidal Cooler, the addition of milk gives the drink the coating finish of a milkshake, albeit in a much lighter, summery form.

DIY Whey

Whey is a very versatile, easy to use and, most importantly, simple to whip up at home. To make it, you simply add a fat-rich milk (we add a touch of cream into whole milk at Super Lyan), heat it gently, then remove it from the heat and add an acid. Lemon or vinegar can be used to add a subtle flavor, but we have had great success making whey and fresh cheese using a very tart, green apple juice. Doug McMaster, who we’ve partnered with at our latest bar, Cub, does a sensational sour caramel-like sauce from reduced whey, but we keep it slightly lighter, applying whey’s sweet acidity to great effect in drinks like our Batida Ramos, which has the incredible texture you want in a Ramos, but with the added benefit of bright acidity. You can also integrate whey into something like a Silk Stocking (either reduced, or sweetened) or into a punch to give it a bright light creaminess.

Kefir, Yogurt + Buttermilk

The sourer siblings of the dairy family are increasingly prevalent in modern drinks. Kefir, yogurt and buttermilk are all excellent at offering richness and dimension—not to mention the greater ease in which they can be integrated into drinks. While cream and milk need a vigorous emulsification to overcome the proteins splitting up when combined with an acid (think how well you have to shake a Ramos Gin Fizz), kefir, yogurt and buttermilk have already been soured. This means that, while they still need a careful mix, they are well suited to blending with—and amplifying—citrus and other fruit juices. Consider our Jungle Lyan, which calls for an ounce of kefir to a base of rum, lime and guava. The kefir pumps up the sourness of the drink, lifting its flavor above the funk of rum and the sweetness of the guava, while also offering a lactic roundness that coats the other flavors and changes their texture.

Butter + Cheese

You might think cheese is a better pairing than it is an ingredient (peated whisky and blue cheese is an all-time fave), but cheese can be integrated into cocktails to great effect. Many years ago we used the mold from a noble blue cheese to inoculate and age a “Living Cocktail” (more on that later), but integrating cheese in drinks at home is as easy as adding a cube of something soft and flavorful to a sour formula—or any drink that you can shake and strain. A scant cube can add an amazing backbone and “substrata” funk to a drink. Butter, on the other hand, is an amazing textural agent that deserves more of a spotlight in fat-washing circles. Find a butter with a particular characteristic you love (grassy and citrusy to rich and aged) and gently melt it down. Pour into a suitable spirit (like whiskey), then cool, skim, filter, refrigerate and swap it into classics like the Old-Fashioned or the Manhattan to give them an extra rich, subtly creamy finish.

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