The Dos and Don’ts of Making Clarified Cocktails

Some simple alchemy can render your drinks nearly clear and fairly crisp. Herein, a guide to making clarified cocktails at home.

January 23, 2023 8:16 am
Two glasses and a decanter of a clarified milk punch made with Equiano Rum
A Clarified Milk Punch, created by Equiano Rum's Ian Burrell
Equiano Rum

Clarified cocktails shouldn’t work, but somehow, they do. A dram of liquor, a dash of bitters, a dose of citrus and a whole bunch of milk all come together for a drink that’s smooth, crystal-clear and perfectly mixed.

If you’re not familiar with milk punch, then you may not know that almost any cocktail can be rendered transparent with a little bit of dairy. It’s simple alchemy: Mix the cocktail, and then introduce the milk. The milk will curdle, sopping up bitter and astringent compounds in the cocktail. Pour the curdled drink through a coffee filter and you’re left with a glassy cocktail that drinks crisp.

Milk-washed cocktails have been a simmering trend for the past several years, especially in New York’s high-end bar scene, where their alluring appearance sets them apart from everything else on the menu. Recently, I tried picking up the trend in my home bar, and though it was easier than I’d imagined, there are still a few tricks to getting it right. And a few ways to absolutely get it wrong.

DO: Clarify classic cocktails

Milk punch is by far the most well-known version of the clarified cocktail, but milk washing can bring new life to the standbys. Everyone expects a frozen margarita, but how about one that’s preternaturally clear? Online bartender The Thirsty Whale makes a milk daiquiri that sips like a fall day. Whiskey sours are fun, but filter out a batch of crystalline New York sours and top with a red wine float for a showstopping alternative. Let your mind run wild. I’m trying this clarified Jungle Bird next.

DON’T: Clarify low-acidity cocktails

You can’t clarify every classic cocktail recipe. You need citrus in your base in order to curdle the milk. I originally wanted to make a clarified Irish Coffee, but there’s not enough astringency in the whiskey, coffee and Irish cream to create the reaction I needed. And don’t make the mistake of trying to clarify a Manhattan and ending up with a creamy highball.

DO: Make large batches

Clarifying cocktails is a lot of work, and it takes time (see below). While you can certainly make clear cocktails one at a time, you’re better off making them in batches. I recommend making four-drink batches, at the very least. Once the drink is milk-washed, it’s shelf-stable and it won’t fall out of suspension, so you can keep any excess bottled as long as you like. 

DON’T: Rush it

Some bartenders say it only takes about two minutes for a cocktail to clarify, but I’ve gotten better results by letting my mixture sit overnight. This allows the milk proteins to really do their thing, resulting in superb clarity. Also, it takes about four hours to completely filter. Plan ahead so that you’re not cutting corners to get the drink in the glass. 

DO: Rinse your filter

Coffee filters are the most common way to separate curds from cocktails. I use a Chemex to strain the milk curds out of my cocktails, and if you don’t rinse the paper first, it gives a definitive paper flavor. Other folks, like The Thirsty Whale, use paper towels inside a fine mesh strainer, which also avoids the problem. But if you’re using a coffee filter, a quick run under the faucet will save you some off-flavors in the final product.

DON’T: Use skim milk, half-and-half or vegan milk

Slightly chilled full-fat milk works the most efficiently to clarify a cocktail. Sorry to the vegans and lactose intolerant, but nut milks don’t curdle as efficiently. Neither do low-fat milks. However, if milk is totally out of the picture for you, Punch did find that coconut cream, agar-agar and gelatin can all be used for similar effect.

The clarified Tablet Negroni
The clarified Tablet Negroni at NYC’s Hidden Leaf — you can find the recipe here
Jason Greenspan

DO: Serve with clarified ice

Why muddy up your cocktail with cloudy refrigerator ice? You want to be able to read the newspaper through your drink, and to do that, you should make clear ice. It’s easier than it sounds. Use filtered or distilled water, and freeze it in an insulated container, making use of directional freezing. You can use those fancy cocktail ice cube trays, but any thermos or insulated mug can make clear ice to complete the perfectly transparent tipple.

DON’T: Pour the milk into the cocktail

I’ve seen great results with mixing milk into the cocktail, but advanced cocktailians swear that you should dump the cocktail into the milk instead. This process allows the booze to get exposed to the milk before it curdles. Dumping the milk in will make it curdle right away. So if you’re ready for a more advanced method, try swapping the order, and enjoy the efficiency. 

(Note: You can find a recipe for the Equiano Rum Clarified Milk Punch recipe, as shown in the top photo, here)


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