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In the craft cocktail world, we are pretty good about knowing obscure historical facts about spirit categories, wine and beer. If there was ever a Jeopardy game based off this, bartenders would dominate the show.
When it comes to the ingredients that are used to make a particular booze or mixer, however, we have a little more trouble. There are a lot of reasons for this:
- First of all there are so many different bottles and mixers available to us now that it is hard to keep track of everything.
- Second, ingredient labels are not required (at least in the USA) for most of these ingredients, and producers have traditionally been very secretive about the ingredients that go into creating their mysterious delicious drinks. (That’s right I’m looking at you Chartreuse!)
So when a customer comes up to you and says they are vegetarian or vegan, then asks which of your cocktails they can drink… are you sure you can answer correctly?
When a customer asks about clear ice or why there are no black cocktails on your menu, many bartenders can recite a doctoral level thesis about how clear ice is made and how that ultimately affects the cocktail or an equally impressive lecture on the health risks of activated charcoal in cocktails.
But what about catering to a customer’s dietary preferences and restrictions? We owe it to our customers to be able to speak confidently and correctly about which cocktails at our bars are safe for Vegetarians and Vegans. This article will help you do just that!
Wait, what’s Vegan anyway?
Typically a “vegan” will not consume or use anything that is made from an animal or produced by an animal. This includes not only meat, bones and the skin, but also products that are derived from animals as well. This can include animal fat, gelatin, milk and eggs.
Remember, we’re in hospitality and everyone is welcome to make their own rules! If you’re not sure whether a customer would oppose a certain ingredient, just call it out and explain why it may be a concern. They’ll be grateful for your honesty and you’ll get to tout your booze knowledge too!
Common Non-Vegan Friendly Ingredients & Techniques:
Cocktails with Foam:
If you have a cocktail on the menu that has a beautiful foam on top, chances are pretty good that foam is made with egg white. (AKA non-Vegan friendly.) That said, there are vegan alternatives out there: it’s possible to create a cocktail foam using Aquafaba (aka chickpea juice) or even fresh pineapple juice. But be sure to check if you’re not sure what your foams are made from.
This is probably going to be your #1 challenge for suiting Vegans at your bar, as many Sours feature egg white foams. Consider keeping some Aquafaba behind the bar, or soy lecithin based foams. They can be tricky to work with, but good plant-based alternatives. (Also, take the time to get familiar with these ingredients and how they work in cocktails). You might just make a Vegan’s night!
Milk & Cream:
If you’re looking to avoid milk and cream, stay away from any “Cream Liquers” like Bailey’s or Rumchata for sure. You’ll also want to avoid “milk punches”, White Russians, and (obviously) Egg Nog too.
While not common ingredients in cocktails, dairy ingredients are much more common in the winter and holiday months, so keep a closer eye this time of year.
Eggs: Nog and Otherwise
Yep, there are some cocktails out there that use eggs! Egg nog (not surprisingly) is definitely on the list, as it’s traditionally made with egg yolk. But if you have a cocktail on the menu called a “flip” then it’s also good to steer clear – they are typically made with a whole raw egg.
Like Bloody Marys and tomato-juice based cocktails? Pay close attention to the Worcestershire Sauce! Traditionally it is made with anchovies and is therefore not considered Vegan. Good news: It’s relatively easy to find Vegan Worcestershire sauce nowadays.
Honey, or Anything Made with Honey
Honey is typically off limits for vegans, so it’s definitely worth calling out. This means you should avoid cocktails like the Gold Rush, Penicillin, and Bee’s Knees as possible offerings. You should also avoid honey-flavored liqueurs like Barenjager liqueur, Krupkik, and Jack Daniels Honey, and spirits featuring honey like Barr Hill Gin.
While certainly less common, fat washing is definitely a technique you’ll see in higher end cocktail bars. In short, it’s a technique where fat (often bacon fat, butter, or other animal-based fats) is incorporated into the cocktail. If you’re looking to serve a Vegan, this is definitely off limits. Oh, and don’t even think about offering a bone luge. (I’ll let you google that.)
Spirits, Liqueurs, Wine & Beer
Ok, we’ve covered the easy stuff. But there are more insidious animal products behind the bar that are much less obvious than cracking an egg! Since alcohol producers are not required to list all the ingredients that go into their product, they usually won’t. Thankfully, in my experience, producers are happy to answer questions if you reach out to them. (Well, they won’t give you the whole recipe, but they will likely be happy to verify whether or not they are using any animal products or by-products.
In general we know what the majority of the base ingredient is from. Whiskey is from grains, brandy from fruit, wine is from grapes and beer is typically grain based. The issue of finding vegan-friendly alcohol is not usually finding out what the base ingredient is, but usually finding out the production methods. Animal-based ingredients are not uncommon in the production of these products.
Beer & Wine
In the beer and wine world, isinglass is gelatin that is used for fining and clarifying liquids. Isinglass is derived from the swim bladders of fish and is said to not be present in the end result. (Note: I was not able to confirm whether isinglass is a common ingredient in spirit production as well.)
The color “Red”:
What does a color have to do with anything, you may ask. It’s included here for good reason: one of the traditional ways that red coloring has been introduced to food, liquids and textiles is by using a small insect called Cochineal. (Campari used to be the most famous example of this, but changed their recipe to use vegan-friendly food coloring around 2006.) Yes, you heard that right: your red liquer might have bugs in it.
In this article from Camper English, Camper provides a few examples of companies that use cochineal derived dye as an ingredient in their alcohol. As always he also provides the history as well.
I highly recommend taking a look at Camper’s article above, but it’s worth mentioning here some of the more common bug-containing liqueurs that he highlights:
- St. George’s Bruto Americano
- Leopold Bros’ Aperitivo
- Pur Spirits’ Aperitivo Zamaro
- Martini & Rossi Riserva Speciale Bitter Liqueur
Mezcal de Pechuga
This unusual (but delicious, if I may) spirit has a fairly unusual production method: it is a mezcal that has been distilled an additional time with fruit, nuts, herbs and spices have been added to the still, and animal protein has been hung in the still as well. Usually it is chicken or turkey breast, but there are many other exotic animal proteins that have been produced as well.
Staying on the (Vegan/Vegetarian) Wagon
If you’re not certain about a particular ingredient, I did find a great resource that identifies vegan-friendly (and unfriendly) alcohol producers: Barnivore is a community run website that lists if a particular alcoholic ingredient is vegan or not. At the time of writing this article there were over 42,000 entries To my surprise Chartreuse was included as a vegan friendly spirit, but Yellow Chartreuse is not vegan friendly as it contains honey.
Hopefully this list will help you make more informed decisions that are in line with your vegan diet.
Take some time to review your cocktail menu to be prepared if someone asks! It’s a great opportunity to learn more about the spirits and ingredients we are using. (And if you’re Vegan or Vegetarian, don’t be afraid to ask your bartender if the drinks you are ordering are safe! You may just help them learn something new about the drinks they are serving.)