There are nearly a million ways to add texture and body to a shaken cocktail. Depending on which bartender you ask, every single one of them is terrible. Egg whites, despite their inclusion in stone-cold classics like the Clover Club and Ramos Gin Fizz, are a nightmare to clean up, waste a bunch of yolks and leave a lingering aroma of wet dog surrounding the cocktail. Aquafaba—the juice from a can of chickpeas—offers a vegan alternative that provides most of the texture of egg whites but swaps wet dog smell for a strong scent of indoor swimming pool. Hydrocolloids like xanthan and guar gums, meanwhile, are amazing at adding texture; they gel on contact with water, but the tiniest percentage change in temperature or concentration will leave you with a snotty mess of a drink. Of course, there is a time and place to deploy each of these ingredients, but when I want to add texture to a shaken drink, there’s one method that I turn to time and time again: milk-washing.
Milk-washing is the process of adding whole milk to a spirit, breaking the milk into curds and whey using a citric acid solution (or lemon juice, which adds flavor and more liquid), and straining the curds off either through a coffee filter or in a centrifuge. The protein in the resulting whey-spirit blend will activate when shaken, resulting in a richly textured, fluffy cocktail—with zero aromatic side effects.
As with any technique, it has its downsides. It’s inaccessible to vegan drinkers, for example, and the proteins lose their ability to foam after about five days, so it’s best suited for small batches at home or high-volume cocktail bars, but the benefits are huge. Take, for example, Garret Richard’s Isle Delfino, an outrageously foamy milk-washed rhum sour, or the Tropical Thunder, a richly textured tropical Daiquiri variant, the first drink I ever landed on a menu at Booker and Dax.
While milk-washing is aroma-neutral, it does have an effect on flavor. The process strips color and some flavor compounds from a spirit. This effect is most pronounced with tannins, the bitter, astringent note ubiquitous in oak-aged wines and spirits. For that reason, when using this technique, it may be prudent to skip spirits like bourbon, whose distinctive characteristics come courtesy of oak aging, and experiment instead with white spirits like gin, unaged rum or vodka. This ability to strip tannins, however, is not a negative quality. It allows for strong infusions of ingredients like black tea which, without this mitigating milk wash, would become so grippy it could strip the enamel from your teeth. A tea-infused, milk-washed spirit, however, retains all of the flavor of the infusion with none of the grip. Try it in Dave Arnold’s classic Tee Time, a refreshing vodka cocktail sweetened with honey syrup and brightened by lemon.
I can already hear the questions from the back of the room: “Isn’t this just a milk punch? Why would you shake a milk punch?” It’s true that milk punches use the same clarification technique as milk-washed spirits, but for the former it’s applied to a complete cocktail, not just a single ingredient. In a milk punch, the process strips particulates from juices and syrups, too, greatly altering the texture of the drink. Milk-washed spirits, meanwhile, can add their whey-inflected frothiness to ingredients like fresh citrus and tropical juices, which—when shaken—are just as important to the quality of the finished cocktail. The result is the best possible conditions for each ingredient to maintain the integrity of a frothy shaken drink.
Milk-washed spirits might never act as a direct substitute for egg whites or aquafaba for dietary reasons or time constraints, but they represent an exciting addition to any bartender’s arsenal and can take just about any shaken drink to the next level.