PART 3: BATCHING, FILTERING, RACKING, BOTTLING
The main batching and clarifying event took place about 5 days before the wedding. I woke up and used a vintage Proctor Silex juicer (called a “Juiceit”) to get 40 ounces of fresh lime juice. This took about an hour and a half, just so we’re clear on the time commitment. I could have probably used a hand press to save some time, but it wouldn’t have given me as much juice as the machine version, so I opted for yield over efficiency.
As I mentioned earlier, lime juice is one of the problems we needed to solve for in this cocktail equation in that we needed to get all those suspended solids out of the drink. So when the pulp and juice came out of the juicer, I passed it first through a normal kitchen sieve to catch the big pulpy bits, then through a finer mesh strainer (like you’d use to double strain a daiquiri), and then finally through a nut milk or “jelly” bag. These things are absolutely brilliant for filtering juices, so if you’re doing any sort of large format batching, definitely order one for yourself. They’re completely reusable and cost less than $10.
So what you see me doing here is hedging. I knew that, in principle, we should be able to clarify this cocktail just using milk curds, but there’s no reason I couldn’t par-clarify the lime juice ahead of time to optimize for the best possible outcome.
Later that morning, Ethan rolled into my kitchen with a few bottles of Campari, three types of rum, and a gallon of whole milk. This is an important detail. Through trial and error, I’ve found that whole milk does a much better job clarifying than skim, 2%, half-and-half, or heavy cream. So long story short, use whole milk.
I had my trusty copy of the aforementioned Liquid Intelligence open to the section about milk washing and clarifying. This turned out to be important for our order of operations because in a caption on page 271, Dave writes:
Always add the liquor to the milk, not the other way around, or the milk will instantly curdle.
Now keep in mind that in this scenario, he’s referencing that black tea infused vodka, which does not contain any citrus, so if he’s saying there’s a risk of curdling even before citrus enters the equation, you’d better believe I was paying attention.
So here’s what we did:
In a 5-gallon brewer’s bucket, which is just a regular food safe plastic bucket that has a lid and and spigot at the bottom, we first poured in a gallon of milk, followed by our rum, Campari, and simple syrup. This mixture looked exactly like strawberry YooHoo, which was both intriguing and slightly disturbing.
So at this point, we’ve got a less than 2.5 gallons of pink liquid in this bucket, to which we added our blend of lime and pineapple juice (40 oz of the Lime and 120 oz of the Pineapple, which works out to about a gallon and a third of tart fruit juice).
When you add citrus to your milk and booze combo, what you’re really looking for is the formation of curds. And these little wads of milk solids float around and mop up any solids in the beverage that might be floating around in suspension. So we gave it some gentle stirring, we began to see our curds form, and we knew we were on the right track.
Now here’s where things got complicated. Or perhaps we just got a little impatient.
After letting the blend sit in the brewer’s bucket for about 5 minutes, we decided that we were going to try and filter our creation, which (in hindsight) was probably the worst thing we could have done.
And that’s because as we started dumping this liquid through strainers and filters of various sizes, we turned our milk solids from nice big curds into TINY little curds, which, it turns out, are much harder to filter.
In this moment, I knew we were a little bit hosed, and I knew there was going to be a much higher “loss rate” associated with filtering out the milk, which would give us a lower yield than we were originally expecting. So I went into damage control mode.
I knew we needed to let this mixture sit so that the curds could settle, so I took a bunch of the lime husks I had leftover from juicing earlier that morning, I threw em in a nylon nut milk bag, and I hung that bag inside the cocktail so that it could take on some of the oils from the lime peel as the curds settled over the course of about half a day.
This was because I was anticipating the need to supplement with extra ingredients before bottling, which did indeed happen. More on that in just a moment.
Over the next 2 days – yeah…this turned into a 3 day project – 2 processes became rather important: filtering and racking.
The downside to filtering is that it’s tedious and time consuming. The upside is that it can be done well if you simply focus on passing your liquid through smaller and smaller holes. If you start by just pouring your milk punch straight into a coffee filter, you’re screwed. That filter is gonna clog, and you’re at a complete stand-still. But, if you have patience and use your head, it can be done correctly.
This is where “racking” comes in. Remember how immediately straining this cocktail was a big mistake? Well, that’s because we didn’t let the curds separate from the booze and settle to the bottom of the container.
So to accelerate the racking process, I passed everything I could through a nut milk bag and then an even finer mesh filter. I then kept transferring the pale pink, chalky-looking liquid to every tall, round, empty liquor bottle I could get my hands on. I stuck these in the fridge to let them settle, and after a few hours I was able to very carefully pour the top 75% or so through a coffee filter, while recycling the bottom 25% back through the rougher filters, which were always constantly just dripping into a bucket or a pot as I answered emails and did work in the background.
Now, one thing that could have saved me a whole lot of filtering here is something called a “separatory funnel,” which you can see on page 284 of Liquid Intelligence. Basically, this is a large, conical glass vessel with a valve on the bottom that allows you to purge the solids that settle to the bottom of a suspension without disturbing the perfectly clear stuff on top. To be clear, a separatory funnel is NOT a common kitchen tool – it’s more designed for lab stuff.
But, if you envision yourself doing a lot of milk clarifying and feel that saving time is worth the investment, you can pick up a 1 Liter separatory funnel on Amazon for about $50, with 2 Liter models available around $100. The advantages of a separatory funnel are that they’re waaaay more affordable than a culinary centrifuge, and they also allow you to side-step some of the more complicated freeze-thaw or gel-related clarification processes described in Liquid Intelligence, so not hyper practical…but I certainly wish I had one during this large-scale cocktail experiment.
So let’s fast-forward through a couple days of filtering and racking, racking and filtering, to the point where I had about 8 Liters of fully clarified junglebird cocktail, which left us about 2 L short of our end goal.
So here’s what I did. I didn’t freak out. I simply took the junglebird recipe we started with, scaled it to 2 liters, and realized I needed about 1 bottle of rum, ⅓ of a bottle of campari, about 8 oz of simple syrup (of which I still had plenty left over), and something clear that was in the vicinity of citrus juice.
So I ran to the liquor store, grabbed one more bottle of clear rum (because it would completely ruin the color to add aged stuff), then I created a citric acid solution with water and citric acid until it tasted roughly as acidic as lime juice. Unfortunately, I didn’t have powdered malic acid, which is the other component of lime juice, but this is where my decision to soak those lime husks really paid off. I added a little extra lime flavor when I realized our curds were broken because I suspected I would have to add some less authentic citrus flavor later on.
So I supplemented our clear, almost peach-toned clarified junglebird with extra rum, campari, simple syrup, and citric acid solution, plus about a half gallon of distilled water for dilution (because remember, jungle birds are shaken for chill and dilution), and happy result was that the end cocktail went from a decent shade of pale tangerine to a much more evocative shade of pink, which seemed fitting for a cocktail called “The Lovebird.”
The Finished Product
So the moral of the story here is that it might pay to think about what color your want your end product to be after milk clarification and see if there’s a way to pull that off by adding a little something on the back end. Our end product was a happy little accident, but yours doesn’t have to be.
From here, the process was quick and easy. I bottled the cocktails using a measuring cup and a funnel to ensure I was putting exactly 375ml in each bottle, I capped em, wiped em down, applied the labels, and whisked 30-or-so bottled cocktails off to Ethan so that he could assemble his welcome bags the day before the rehearsal dinner.
This was a long, and fairly complicated process, but there’s two primary takeaways I’d like to leave you with besides all the important process-related details I just described.
First: when you’re designing something custom like this, there’s real value in collaborating with someone. I came up with the milk clarification idea, and it was Ethan who brought the concept of a custom rum blend to the table. Working together with someone allows you to sanity check your own ideas and methods and just overall makes the process more enjoyable.
And second: don’t be afraid of creative pivots. We broke the curds – whoops. But it turns out that was an opportunity to infuse some extra lime flavor while the curds settled. Looks like we’re 2 liters short – whoops. But it turns out that was an opportunity to make the color of the cocktail even more beautiful.
The reason why I try to teach the basics and first principles of spirits and cocktails on this podcast is because you don’t have to be a master mixologist to pull off something like bottled cocktails for 40 people. You just need to understand some of the basics – like how things react when they’re combined and how you can reverse engineer a flavor using different ingredients if you find yourself in a pinch.
I’m happy to report that the Lovebird cocktails were a huge hit with guests at the wedding. They enjoyed the flavors, the clarity, the color, and the bottled presentation. I’ll have pictures and video of many different phases of this process over on the show notes page, which you can find at ModernBarCart.com/podcast.
Thanks for tuning in to this Bar Cart Foundations episode. I hope you learned some things from my recent adventures in milk clarification, and I hope that if you try your hand at something similar, you’ll share your results with us on social media.
Just remember, if at all possible, don’t break your curds.