“Everything old is new again” rings especially true in modern American craft cocktail culture.
From coast to coast, bartenders are using pre-Prohibition techniques and recipes, filtered through today’s science, technology and access to global ingredients. In the best instances, this produces fascinating drinks that no 20th century barkeep could imagine.
Helmed by owner Christian Willmott, bar manager Megan Lee and bartender Jessica Wegrzyn, the cocktail program at downtown’s Marble + Rye offers demure service and elegant cocktails, a kindler, gentler version of the mustachioed and raucous cocktail experience that many city drinkers have grown to love.
A full whiskey program ensures that even the heartiest of drinkers will leave satisfied, but delicacy and balance are the best descriptors of the graceful cocktail offerings.
One age-old technique mastered and reconfigured by the restaurant’s barstaff is known as milk washing, a simple but time-consuming task first employed in mid-18th -century England. It’s a branch of a practice known as fat washing, which can employ any fat, from bacon to butter, or at its most ridiculous, an entire grilled cheese sandwich.
Milk washing was originally developed to transform poor quality spirits into something better. First, the base spirit is combined with some form of acid, typically citrus juice. Milk is brought to a boil and added to the base spirit. The chemical reaction between acid and milk causes coagulation. Finally, the coagulated milk is thoroughly and repeatedly strained from the base spirit using a chinois and cheesecloth.
At Marble + Rye, this basic process is applied, with a few additional steps. The base spirit is first infused with a desired flavor, then the enhanced spirit is added to milk. Finally, citric acid is used to curdle the milk and the resulting liquid is strained through coffee filters.
Milk washing rounds out the edges in a base spirit, converting it to a more delicate liquor with a luxurious mouthfeel. The milk proteins it leaves behind add body, allowing milk-washed liquor to take on a subtly frothy texture when shaken. It works wonderfully in Marble + Rye’s punches—where the entire punch drink is milk washed, not just the base spirit—but also in its Belafonte cocktail, created by Lee and named by Wegrzyn.
One sip and it’s easy to see how a few coupe glasses of the Belafonte might change the complexion of a hot summer day. Channeling the tropics and warm breezes, the combination of coconut-infused and milk-washed rum, Kirk & Sweeney 12-year rum, smoked pineapple juice, lime and Demerara simple syrup create a drink both soft and bright, subtly smoky and refreshing. Thanks to the milk washing, it also offers a supple, smooth texture that is both sexy and satisfying.
“As a business owner that is conscientious about cost and waste, I also appreciate the preservative qualities of this process,” said Willmott. “For example, when we make our punches we typically milk wash the entire punch as opposed to [just the base] spirit. This allows us to use fruit juices and other perishable ingredients without them oxidizing or spoiling in a single day.”
Oxidation is the major enemy of any craft cocktail program, where the high cost of using fresh juices can only be controlled with strict efficiencies and careful stock rotation.
Milk-washed spirits have been a staple on the Marble + Rye’s cocktail menu almost since it opened. With a milk-washed punch available every night of the week (by the punch bowl for six at $40; or by the single serving at $7) and the occasional milk-washed cocktail, like the Belafonte, the process frequently creates delightful results.
No matter how sophisticated the bar program at Marble + Rye may seem, neophytes and connoisseurs alike will find themselves at home here. “We invite anyone and everyone to sit at our bar, ask us questions, and challenge us,” said Willmott. “[We want everyone to] leave feeling they had a truly unique experience, one we are proud to offer.”
Swing in on your own or with a friend to sample the Belafonte, or meet the gang at Marble + Rye for a pre- or post-event impromptu punch party.
Price: Belafonte cocktail $10; punch $7/$40 for six-serving punch bowl
Info: Marble + Rye, 112 Genesee St., 853-1390. Hours: 4 p.m. to midnight, Tuesday through Saturday. Closed Sunday, Monday.
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Christa Glennie Seychew is the organizer of Nickel City Chef, former Buffalo Spree senior editor, and content manager for the Loupe restaurant app.