Shelf-stable condensed milk is used widely in drink applications around the globe, notably in coffee culture from Vietnam to Cuba; milky teas in India, Hong Kong and beyond; and Puerto Rico’s Coquito, to name just a few.
Now bartenders are using it in unexpected applications to add creamy texture to a slew of cocktails.
Orestes Cruz, bartender at Atlanta’s Empire State South, enriches agave syrup with sweetened condensed milk in his Romance in Graceland cocktail, made with peanut butter fat-washed Cognac, banana liqueur, amontillado sherry and lemon juice. The condensed milk adds a “richer consistency” and a long-lasting, silky texture, he notes. “It’s an ingredient with possibilities, and we sometimes overlook it,” he says.
For Cruz, who grew up in New Orleans and Mexico City, three creamy drinks inspired the creation of a condensed milk syrup. The first was pulque, a fermented agave-based drink with a thick, milkshake-like consistency, often mixed with seasonal fruits or vegetables and condensed milk. Second was India’s sweet yogurt-based lassi, a drink favored by a former roommate. The third was a riff on the Absinthe Frappé created by Scott Baird for New Orleans restaurant Couvant, where Cruz himself used to work.
That Frappé riffs on the NOLA classic, layering absinthe with lemon, crème de menthe and condensed milk. “I put it on the menu as sucre d’lait – ‘sugar milk,’” Baird recalls. “People think of condensed milk as canned and gross.” He disagrees, of course, reframing it as “milk caramel” and praising the “unctuous” texture it lends to drinks. It also serves a specific function: “I like a creamy beverage, but lemon and milk might not play well together, [but] condensed means it won’t separate,” he explains.
The robust creaminess also allows it to “round out sharp edges really easily,” Baird continues. For that reason, he favors it to soften flavors—such as absinthe or red bitters—that some find challenging. During his days at San Francisco bar 15 Romolo, where he worked between 2008 and 2013, Baird built a Campari Frappé around sweetened condensed milk, along with rosewater, reposado tequila and Meyer lemon. He also adds it to make a creamy version of Dante’s Garibaldi, with Campari and fluffy orange juice. “In my head it’s like the Orange Julius,” Baird says. “[The condensed milk] is the thing that makes it the Julius.”
Baird doesn’t claim to be the first to work the ingredient into a cocktail. In fact, he points to the batidas that appeared in Dale DeGroff’s 2002 book The Craft of the Cocktail. (It also appears in the newly released edition of the book.) While some batida recipes include coconut milk, “I chose the sweetened condensed milk because the bartenders in Brazil were using it in their batidas,” DeGroff recalls.
Beyond frappés and batidas, it’s a versatile ingredient. Cruz, for example, is workshopping a clarified milk punch using sweetened condensed milk; he also suggests using it in drinks typically made with cream or ice cream, such as Grasshoppers. Meanwhile, Baird sees applications for condensed milk in rich drinks like eggnog or Tom & Jerry, coffee-based drinks, or as an elaborate garnish.
“I made a sweetened condensed milk meringue in an iSi to throw on top of a drink,” he says. “Add sugar and egg white, you can torch it and make it caramelized.” After all, “it’s a sugar that comes from milk and it’s nothing to be afraid of. Have fun with it.”