Milk cocktails sweep Bay Area bars


By Lou Bustamante

Milk is a gateway drink: It is the first food we ingest as children, and as adults it is commonly part of the first alcoholic drinks we enjoy. Mudslides, White Russians and Brandy Alexanders are training wheels for future cocktail consumption.

The use of dairy in drink isn’t simply limited to sweet, creamy drinks, though. The colder winter season demands cocktails with a little more heft, and dairy drinks like egg nogs and milk punches fill the need, without the potency of stirred drinks. Especially during the holidays, Bay Area bartenders are enhancing their tipples with the different components and varieties of milk.

“Right off the top of my head there are at least a dozen drinks that call for some combination of milk with almost all of the old world spirits, like Scotch whisky, French brandy, Sherry, Madeira, rum and gin,” says Craig Lane of Bar Agricole, who is currently offering a brandy milk punch.

At its simplest, the addition of cream or milk to a drink will smooth out the edges of the liquor, while imparting a silky texture when shaken or mixed. These qualities are what made “milkshakes” — drinks with milk, sugar and liquor — so popular during Prohibition, when sugar and dairy would mask the flaws of poorly made liquor. But these concoctions also unfairly pigeonholed milk cocktails as dessert drinks.

“Most drinks that call for dairy only become cloying when the balancing ratios of spirits, liqueurs and sugar are out of whack,” says Lane.

As a basic ingredient, milk is unrivaled in its uses to make hundreds of varieties of cheese, or yogurt, butter, buttermilk, kefir and so on. Each preparation can be used to achieve different effects in drinks.

Nearly every Bay Area cocktail bar has some version of a dairy drink at this time of year. At ‘Aina, a Hawaiian restaurant in the Dogpatch neighborhood, bar manager Jason Alonzo makes a Coconut Milk Punch (see recipe) that uses a combination of whole milk and dairy-free coconut milk to get the cocktail weight just right.

Penrose in Oakland offers a Baltimore Eggnog, made with light cream, milk, egg, sugar Madeira, rum and brandy. Lolo’s Perfect Stranger includes Ford’s gin, Lo-Fi dry vermouth, oloroso Sherry, jalapeño brine, celery bitters and — surprise! — clarified goat’s milk. Polk Street’s 1760 has an adult version of an Orange Julius (orange, cream, cinnamon, vodka), while Civic Center’s new Indian restaurant August 1 Five is doing a boozy lassi (turmeric, dark rum, passion fruit and kefir).

The list goes on. But incorporating dairy into a cocktail isn’t as simple as adding cream to your favorite drink.

“You have to be very careful with citrus,” says Suzanne Miller, beverage director at Novela. “It will curdle.”

Miller, who currently has an eggnog, hot buttered rum and clarified milk punch on her menu, points to the classic Ramos Gin Fizz as a cocktail that manages to harmoniously incorporate both milk and citrus.

However, the curdling effect actually becomes desirable when clarifying milk for punches. Once curdled, the solids are strained out and the drink becomes clear — but with a milk flavor.

According to author and cocktail historian David Wonderich, this breakthrough happened in the late 1600s. As Wonderich writes in his book “Imbibe,” the process allowed dairy to be used with improved stability, since it could be kept indefinitely. The clarified milk punch, while time consuming, contributes dairy flavor, without the heft.

“Like a chef using egg whites to clarify a rich beef stock into a perfectly clear, rich and robust consommé, clarifying milk removes the heavy mouthfeel and it also allows the clarification to be paired with higher acidic cocktails,” says Arnold Wong of the Treasury in downtown San Francisco.

Just like choosing different sorts of whiskey — bourbon, Scotch, rye, etc. — can transform a cocktail, incorporating different animals’ milks can offer more flavors and textures.

Nathan Maxwell Cann, bar manager at Nomica, uses both goat’s and sheep’s milks, and finds that both offer more flavor, with goat’s milk being pungent and musky, adding more depth to a drink. Meanwhile, sheep’s milk is grassier and sweeter.

“Sheep’s milk is much higher in proteins and fat, and I have always had difficulty in getting it to clarify as well as its other cloven-hoof cousins,” says Cann. “Goat milk creates the best clarification and flavor profile.”

When Penrose opened for brunch, bar manager Matthew Harrison, who can’t drink dairy, set out to create a vegan version of the Irish Coffee with coconut cream in place of the whipped cream. It didn’t quite work.

“I could not make it happen,” says Harrison. “It doesn't have the same oil content, and the feel of cream of coconut dissipates quicker.”

Just more proof that dairy is an invaluable component of the cocktail bar. Or, as Bar Agricole’s Craig Lane aptly puts it: “Milk is actually a pretty versatile ingredient.”