These days, bartenders are working harder than ever to make cocktails that appeal to everyone. No booze? No problem. Gluten-free? Sure! Dairy-free? You betcha. “People have been mixing milk with booze for as long as they’ve been mixing anything with booze,” says Nick Brown of The Spaniard in New York City. “But in this day and age, with so many people having lactose issues, or being vegan, or being health-conscious in general, it’s essential to have non-dairy options on a cocktail menu.”
Brown just recently started to play with milk alternatives in cocktails. Taking a cue from baristas, he discovered how perfectly oat milk mixes with coffee, a moment that led to the creation of the Oat Milk & Honey cocktail. Now oat milk is his go-to dairy substitute, and he plans to use more of it moving forward. “It’s an interesting way to capture that milk texture,” he says, adding that Oatly is his brand of choice. “Oat milk brands differ wildly in taste and quality. Some are very cardboard-y, some are very sweet. Oatly is the only one we’ve found that really shines in this cocktail.”
In San Diego, Kindred specializes in vegan cocktails, and bartender David Kinsey has tried most of the available milk alternatives in their drinks. “I prefer the richer alt-milks for cocktails like the barista blend almond milks or oat milks, because their textures are creamy and velvety, which is usually what I’m looking for when grabbing a milk for a cocktail,” he says. Almond milk has been on Kindred’s menu since the bar opened, used in the Kiss of Steel cocktail and, more recently, in the Time & Tide cocktail with rum, sherry, banana liqueur, pineapple, lime, orgeat and allspice bitters. Also on the current menu, the Necronominog is bartender Dannika Underhill’s take on vegan eggnog, with oat milk adding sweetness to a mix of rum and non-dairy brown butter batter (which uses coconut cream for body). “The brown butter gives it an almost gingerbread-like flavor,” Kinsey says.
Nearby, San Diego bartender Erick Castro also created a vegan eggnog for Raised by Wolves. He uses a blend of cashew and almond milks by Silk to recreate a creamy texture, then brings in Carpano Antica and falernum to add to the drinks body and texture. Cognac and rum serve as the base spirits, and allspice dram and maple syrup lend spice and sweetness. “I wanted to make a vegan eggnog that tasted every bit as good, if not better, than the best nog you could ever make at home,” he says. “This recipe took me weeks to perfect, and it is exactly what I aiming for. It’s decadent, delicious and perfectly festive for the holidays.”
Doug Phillips of The Whistler in Chicago says choosing a milk alternative depends more on the style cocktail you’re making. “With tropical, tiki-esque cocktails I like coconut milk/cream, and in the case of whiskey and other dark spirits, nut and grain milk substitutes naturally mix well,” he says. Also remember to consider the intended texture of the final drink, as milk alternatives tend to vary in thickness. Almond milk and hemp milk might have a thinner texture than soy or oat, for example. “The point of milk in a cocktail is mostly for texture—it should thicken and impart a creamy mouthfeel in the cocktail,” Phillips adds.
This holiday season, Phillips is offering a dairy-free hot chocolate based on a recipe cited by Jeff Berry in Potions of the Caribbean. “The recipe predates the practice of mixing dairy into chocolate, and I wanted to get a recipe as close to the original as possible,” Phillips says. At The Whistler, he makes a large batch of hot chocolate with honey, allspice, vanilla, cinnamon, salt and cayenne, and then adds rum to each individual serving. For any dairy-free hot chocolate, Phillips advises reading labels of chocolates carefully. “The FDA found that chocolate that claims to be dairy-free may contain small amounts of dairy, so find a distributor you trust. I like the Whole Foods brand 365 for a good drinking chocolate that does not contain dairy.”
To experiment at home, start with what you know and what you already like. “If you’re a hemp milk fan, use hemp milk before you start experimenting with other alternatives, because you’ll already have a good feel for its flavor and textures,” Kinsey says. In cocktails, milk alternatives often don’t work as a straightforward 1:1 swap for dairy, so be prepared to adjust your ratios and taste as you go. “Many non-dairy milks have a natural sweetness or sometimes an added sweetness to make them more palatable, so taste the milk on its own before mixing it, and bring down the sweetness in the rest of the drink if necessary,” Brown says. “Remember that you can always add more sugar, but it’s hard to take it away.”
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