How to Science Your Way to a Clarified Cocktail

Team Lyan shares their advice on how to clarify cocktails at home, using everything from agar-agar to paper filters.

One of our most requested drinks we served at White Lyan was a clarified Piña Colada. We took the tropical classic in a new direction by curdling coconut cream with pineapple juice and filtering it into a clear syrup. We then added fake lime juice to the mix, along with rum, and topped the whole thing with soda water. It was a clear Piña Colada highball that still maintained all of the richness and mouthfeel of the original.

But why go through all that hassle, you may ask? Well, in very simple terms, the process of clarification helps you “trap” and remove insoluble matter from a liquid. That insoluble matter can influence flavor, the visual appearance and the mouthfeel of your drink. By clarifying it, you can take a drink you know well in a completely different direction.

While there are new and advanced techniques out there that allow you to speed up the clarification process (like the centrifuge), there are plenty of ways you can tackle clarification at home, no laboratory required. Here are our go-to methods, and when to employ them.

Agar-Agar or Gelatin Clarification

Both agar-agar and gelatin will clarify your drink by trapping all of the solids that make your cocktail cloudy in a gel. Both substances consist of long chains of molecules that can be “detangled” in hot water. These molecules will intertwine again upon cooling of the liquid, creating a semi-solid mixture. You then use syneresis, a fancy word for extraction of liquid from a gel, to get your crystal clear drink; this happens when the gel gets disturbed either by freezing, or simply breaking the structure of the gel.

While agar-agar and gelatin tend to be used interchangeably, there are few differences between these substances. Agar-agar is a jelly-like substance obtained from algae; it has higher gelling properties, which means it will set at room temperature. Gelatin is a collagen derived from various animal parts that requires refrigeration to set.

There are two ways you can use agar-agar or gelatin: The “freeze and thaw” method or the “quick gel” method, as described in Dave Arnold’s Liquid Intelligence. To clarify a juice or an entire cocktail using the “freeze and thaw” method, you need to blend your hydrocolloid of choice into the liquid. It you are using agar-agar, make sure it’s “activated”: let the mixture come to very low boil, turn off the heat and let it sit at this temperature for about five minutes to trigger agar-agar’s gelling properties. You then move the mixture into a freezer and wait until it’s thoroughly frozen, ideally overnight. Remove from the freezer and allow it to slowly melt over a paper filter, being careful not to agitate the liquid. If using agar-agar, thawing can be done at room temperature; if using gelatin, the gel should be thawed in the fridge. It’s good to remember that this method may not be suitable for higher-ABV cocktails (21 percent and up), as alcohol has a lower freezing point. Stick to lower-ABV stirred drinks or sours.

To clarify a juice or a cocktail using the “quick gel” method, opt for agar-agar versus gelatin. All you need to do is disperse the activated agar-agar (see above) into your liquid; our recommended dosage is 0.02 percent of your total liquid weight. Let it set into a gel, which will take about an hour or so when the mixture reaches room temperature. After it’s all done, whisk the gel to break it down and let the liquid seep out of the gel over a paper filter. This method will work even for delicate juices and higher-ABV cocktails.

Simple Filtration

Simple filtration can also yield a clear cocktail. For clarifying, it’s best to start with the coarsest filter (sieve or muslin cloth) to get the big particles out of the way and then gradually move on to the finest type of a filter (paper coffee filter); this method will work for any type of a cocktail, but does not always provide a crystal-clear appearance. It can also be time consuming and often lowers the yield of your cocktail if a few different filtration levels are required.

Protein Clarification

Like agar-agar and gelatin, proteins, like milk or egg whites, can also trap unwanted particles in your cocktail.

One of the most popular examples of this method is the milk punch. The origins of this classic drink date back to the 1800s, when milk was added to acidic cocktails to make them “easier on the stomach.” It didn’t quite work as intended: When milk is added to an acidic liquid, its proteins will coagulate and curdle, separating from the mixture. But this makes it very simple to strain and results in a crystal-clear liquid.

Another protein that can be used for clarification is egg white, which is an old technique developed by the chefs to clarify stock or consommé. Similar to milk punch, you’re relying on proteins, in this case the egg albumen, to coagulate via heat (as done traditionally in case of consommé clarification) or acidity (much like the milk punch).

Recipes

Mexican Firing Squad 2.0
In our postmodern take on this Margarita-adjacent classic, we call on fake lime juice and clarified tomato grenadine for a savory riff on the original.

Curdled Colada 
Our take on the Piña Colada reimagines the creamy classic as a clear, bubbly long drink.

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