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Clarified Cocktails Are Everywhere — It’s Getting Boring

A terrible Margarita is a small tragedy, but a real one. The cocktail’s charm lies in its near un-mess-up-ability: tangy lime, bright tequila, sweet triple sec shaken together until fluffy and cold. Simple. Refreshing. Even losing lime for sour mix can’t completely mess up a Margarita.

What can mess up a Margarita? Clarifying it.

“Right now, everybody wants everything clarified, everything. And it’s ridiculous — it’s obnoxious,” says Kate Gerwin, owner of Happy Accidents Bar in Albuquerque, N.M. Gerwin laments that when a technique becomes popular, bartenders can run wild with it, without considering how it will improve or change a cocktail. Sometimes clarifying a drink is the right technique to achieve a creative vision. But when clarifying cocktails purely for appearances or to attract attention on social media, that’s where you run into thin, boring drinks, she says. (And deflated, watery, one-note Margaritas.)

Gerwin’s right. Clarified cocktails regularly go viral whether they taste great or not. So what’s behind this clarification proliferation? And what’s the line between a clarified drink that’s great, and one that’s a gimmick?

Clarifying Giveth

Clarified cocktails are easy to spot, and most venues we might reasonably describe as craft cocktail bars will offer at least one of them. The drink will invariably be dazzlingly translucent, transparent enough to read the menu right through. Or you might see one in a video on your social media feed, where a pitcher of murky mixture drops brilliantly clear and filters into a glass with a moniker like “clarified piña colada” or a “cereal milk punch.”

Many bartenders consider Dave Arnold a sort of father of the resurgence of clarified cocktails. He started tinkering with clarification techniques in 2009, a few years before he opened the beloved New York cocktail bar Booker and Dax, where he put his methods into action. Then he put his ideas down on paper in his James Beard Award-winning book “Liquid Intelligence,” which outlines how to use everything from gravity to milk to seaweed to render a liquid clear. And when he became frustrated at the expense and footprint needed to put a centrifuge in his bar kitchen, he went ahead and invented his own tabletop version. Now his Spinzall centrifuge swirls juices until they’re completely clear in top bars around the world.

There are two instances when clarifying is not just beneficial, but indispensable, according to Arnold.

The first is carbonation. “If you’re going to carbonate a drink, if it’s not clear, it’s not going to maintain its bubbles well because [solids] make nucleation sites,” he explains. Nucleation sites are solids, such as particles in fresh citrus juice, that carbon dioxide can latch onto and form a bubble. That bubble then rises to the top of the solution (i.e., your cocktail) and escapes. Any cloudiness in a carbonated drink will cause foaming and therefore render it flat rather than bubbly.

“Another reason, obviously, in stirred drinks, we like them to look elegant,” Arnold adds. “Removing solids means the drink doesn’t leave crap on the side of the glass.”

These two pillars of clarification come together in the perfectly balanced Pear Highball at Scarfes Bar in the Rosewood London Hotel. “It has the appearance of a classic highball, the clarity our visitors expect,” says Martin Siska the Area Director of Bars, Europe, for Rosewood Hotels. “But when you taste it, there is all of that fresh pear flavor.”

“Every bar is going to have five or six clarified drinks on their menu. That’s pretty standard now. But when it is the whole menu, you need to wonder why they are doing it.”

The team at Scarfes uses a centrifuge to clarify the pear juice, removing its pulpy, thick texture and its murky appearance. They then mix it with Muscat wine and single malt Scotch before carbonating the entire drink and serving it over a single very long, very clear ice cube. Carbonated until effervescent and elegant — just as Arnold prescribed. “Without clarifying it, it would be a mushy, brown drink,” Siska says, “and no one would want that.” (A murky highball certainly has no place among the soaring globe chandeliers, deep leather armchairs, and polished dark wooden bar at Scarfes.)

Just down the street at Dram Bar, clarified drinks are also poured and served with an elongated clear ice cube. In this case, it’s not necessarily in the pursuit of elegance as much as efficiency. The upper room serves four carbonated cocktails from taps behind the bar, similar to the setup at other lauded bars like Double Chicken Please in New York City. Clarifying a cocktail before kegging it means the liquid will pour smoothly from taps as well as flow easily through the draft system.

Both of these beverage programs also have other shaken, stirred, and strained cocktails available elsewhere in the bar. However, that’s not the case at every bar.

“Every bar is going to have five or six clarified drinks on their menu. That’s pretty standard now,” says Gerwin. “But when it is the whole menu, you need to wonder why they are doing it.” Gerwin recently went with a group to a bar she respects and ordered one of everything on the menu. She was disappointed that every drink was colorless or maybe had a slight shade of pink. “After we ate the garnishes it was hard to tell the drinks apart,” she says.

For Gerwin, this is where the trend has gone too far. When every drink is made from the same template, bartenders show less creativity and guests receive uninspired drinks.

Clarity Taketh Away

The feeling of monotony goes beyond these drinks looking the same. They will also all feel the same, unless the bar team is ready to put in some extra work. “Whenever you’re clarifying, by definition you’re removing something,” says Arnold. Removing solids from an ingredient like pear juice obviously changes the mouthfeel, and removes texture from the drink. If a drink needs texture, “you can add texturing agents back,” he adds.

“Something like a Margarita, you’re not going to be clarifying that, You could clarify the lime, or use acids and then add something to build [the body] back. But why? People love the classic.”

Jason Hedges, director of beverage at Laurent Tourondel Hospitality, always has a clarified version of a classic cocktail available on draft at Back Bar in New York. He says these drinks are playful yet recognizable enough to have on the menu, and when the bar runs through a batch the team puts on something new.

When he made a clarified Espresso Martini he realized the drink lacked more than color. “It had all the hallmark flavors of an Espresso Martini,” he says, but it was still missing the feel of the classic. What it needed was a layer of silky foam dispensed from an ISI whipper to give it creaminess.

Now, he’s serving a clarified New York Sour. Hedges uses milk to separate out the solids in the base of whiskey, fresh lemon, and simple syrup and kegs that mixture. After pouring it from the tap he finishes the drink with a red wine float. This wine topper has a different, drier tannic mouthfeel that keeps the drink from feeling thin or one note. Plus, the clear base makes the difference between the two layers even more striking than the classic. “It’s really visually alluring,” he says.

When It’s Clearly Not Worth It

Just as there are rules for what makes a great clarified drink. There are rules for what drinks should be left opaque and decidedly less than elegant.

“I think people are forgetting that trends are trendy, where classics stick around and stand the test of time because they’re tried and true.”

“Something like a Margarita, you’re not going to be clarifying that,” says Siska. He insists a classic Margarita needs texture and body to be satisfying. “You could clarify the lime, or use acids and then add something to build [the body] back. But why? People love the classic.”

No matter how gently bartenders clarify a juice, using simple gravity or temperature to pull out light-blocking solids until the liquid is clear (or translucent), the technique will mute some of the fresh fruit flavor. With so many stripped-down ingredients, Gerwin worries: “Are we starting to forget about fresh juice and flavor? Absolutely!”

Drinks that depend on the lusciousness of fruit, the airiness of a dry shake, or the heavy creaminess of dairy are going to feel pretty empty when they’re clarified. Imagine a Brandy Alexander without the heft of cream, a Daiquiri without the complexity of fresh lime, or a Garibaldi without its signature fluffy orange — they’ll all fall flat and far short of expectations.

“I think people are forgetting that trends are trendy, where classics stick around and stand the test of time because they’re tried and true,” Gerwin says. “They offer something that people gravitate to. So the clarification trend to me is getting completely out of hand.”

Arnold gravitates toward something very specific in his personal ideal Margarita. “The texture of an amazing Margarita [that’s] shaken, vigorously poured, served, and drunk right away,” he says, “to me, that’s joy … and you’re never going to get that experience with a clarified product.”

It’s a surprising declaration from the veritable king of clear whose clarification methods and tools are wildly popular with bartenders worldwide. But even he knows there’s a limit.

“Look, my living is based on people wanting to continue to make drinks clear,” he says. “But I love shaken drinks and I don’t want ’em clarified. Not everything needs to be clear.”

The article Clarified Cocktails Are Everywhere — It’s Getting Boring appeared first on VinePair.

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