Why are Bartenders Taking the Color Out of Their Cocktails?

Looks like water, tastes like a mojito.

Duane Sylvestre’s clarified mojito. Photograph by Scott Suchman.

Sitting on the patio at Bourbon Steak, it would be easy to think the most popular summer drink this year is water garnished with mint. That is until you take a sip of barman Duane Sylvestre’s crystalline concoction—a clarified mojito—which looks like H2O but packs the rum-fueled punch of the Cuban classic.

Sylvestre isn’t the only Washington bartender playing with clarification, a method that removes solid particles and color from a liquid—most often a citrus juice—yet retains the flavor. Most, like Sylvestre, use the powdered plant agar, also a popular substance in avant-garde kitchens like DC’s Minibar. The agar changes liquid to a substance similar to Jell-O, and a clear fluid is then gently extracted through cheesecloth.

Bartenders such as Sylvestre favor clarifying for its aesthetic appeal as well as its ability to lengthen the juice’s shelf life by a day. (Many cocktail bars spend an hour daily juicing fresh fruit.) Others, including Trevor Frye at Jack Rose Dining Saloon, see a significant bump in taste.

“You’re unveiling the better flavors of the citrus,” says Frye, who mixes clarified lemon juice with Talisker Scotch and maraschino liqueur at Jack Rose’s reservation-only cocktail bar, Dram & Grain. It’s one of the few constants on the frequently changing menu. “The tartness goes away and you get a much brighter citrus taste.”

The only dangerous side: Drinking too much of the smooth results can make things decidedly less clear.

This article appears in the August 2014 issue of Washingtonian.

Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.