Much to the delight of technique-driven bartenders and experimental drinkers everywhere, clarification is here to stay. Crystal-clear cocktails with only a transparent whisper of color command attention on a bar top and captivate our senses with unexpected flavor combinations. Tutorials to master the technique are abundant, but they don’t answer the much more intriguing question: Beyond the visual appeal, why clarify something at all?
This question has been at the forefront of my mind for my entire career behind bars. As the head bartender at both Booker and Dax and Existing Conditions, two of New York’s most-experimental cocktail bars, I’ve spent countless hours manning a centrifuge making cloudy ingredients clear and marrying flavors in novel ways. And when it comes time to assemble disparate elements into a cocktail, ultimately there are only two circumstances under which I would clarify an ingredient—and neither has anything to do with what the finished drink looks like.
The first is carbonated cocktails.
Nucleation sites, the microscopic crevices from which bubbles cascade in a glass (think of a sugar cube in a Champagne cocktail), are the mortal enemy of carbonation. Any imperfection in a vessel, ice cube, or speck of juice pulp is a site for carbon dioxide molecules, aka bubbles, to grab hold and wrench themselves free from the solution. Even a strained juice will have enough solids to quickly dull a bubbly beverage. Clarification, whether through centrifugation, freeze-and-thaw or quick-gel methods, however, will maintain the sparkling quality of carbonated drinks far longer by removing the nucleation sites floating throughout. A G&T topped with clarified lime juice instead of a freshly squeezed lime wedge, for example, results in long-lasting bubbles with better texture than the traditionally assembled alternative—with the same signature bitter-tart balance.
The second situation necessitating clarified ingredients is when crafting a stirred drink with the acidity of a shaken sour. High-acid stirred cocktails with clarified ingredients, such as Garret Richard’s MacIntosh Plus, are delicious for the same reasons high acid riesling and chenin blanc are beloved in wine circles: that glorious combination of lush body and texture with refreshing brightness. But the citrus and tropical juices that usually provide this flavor profile are trapped in the realm of shaken drinks because cloudy juice becomes a swampy nightmare in stirred cocktails. Clarifying these juices, however, makes them viable candidates for stirring.
Milk punches like Will Wyatt’s Sex Panther can likewise provide some of these flavors with a similar visual appeal, but the process of clarifying an entire cocktail through milk curds also strips some of the character from the spirit, and the whey left in the finished drink rounds those sharp, electric edges from each individual ingredient. Stirred cocktails with clarified components, meanwhile, maintain their focus and vibrancy while providing an entirely new avenue for flavor exploration. The Portfolio, a stirred mixture of mezcal, Scotch, amaro and clarified lemon cordial, is a prime example. Because of its spirituous composition, it sits in the bold, brash, boozy end of the cocktail spectrum with drinks like Phil Ward’s Oaxaca Old-Fashioned. Shaking this combination of spirits with lemon juice and simple syrup would collapse the rich architecture of the drink, ruining the very quality that makes it so fascinating—it would be just another sour.
Keep in mind, not every cocktail is a candidate for clarification. After all, the crux of many of the most delicious classics is aeration from shaking. A Daiquiri is nothing without its frothy liveliness and subtle bitterness from freshly squeezed lime. In fact, the most common pitfall of clarified ingredients is the trap of the technique swap: taking a shaken classic and serving it at the wrong texture, i.e. stirred. A good guideline when deciding whether to shake a drink with fresh juice or clarify the juice and stir it is to examine the overall impression of the drink in question. Cocktails that have bold but straightforward flavor profiles like Daiquiris and Margaritas benefit from shaking, while drinks that have highly complex or subtle ingredients might benefit from clarification and stirring. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, but it’s an easily avoided stumbling block. Above all, remember that clarification is an opportunity—push it to the outer limits and create something new.