Facts: but with cream, please!

Cream can be a “messy” topic behind the bar. The line between dreamy creaminess and sticky goo is very thin indeed. But the fact is that cream is by no means the demon it’s still made out to be by many bartenders. Philipp Gaux takes a closer look here.

The topic of cream at bars really is one of light and shade. Some reminisce of days gone by, praising the velvety character it lends to drinks, while others moan about cream’s omnipresent dominance in every cocktail where it’s used as an ingredient. Cream splits opinion. But wait! How did this happen? What does cream do to a drink? It’s time for a look back into the past!

1) the “Good” old days

It’s the 1980s. The political atmosphere in Germany is almost as frosty as the winters. Many dream of escaping the cold and the Cold War for a little while with the first available flight to sunnier climes. And even if your pocket change won’t quite get you to the Bahamas, it’s probably enough at least for a Piña Colada, a “Swimming Pool” or a “Flying Kangaroo” (both creations from Schumann’s in Munich, by the way). So at home folks kept the dream of warmer days alive with the tropical illusions served up with coconut, pineapple, cream and Blue Curaçao. The German star of this scene was none other than Charles Schumann, whose creamy concoctions soon made him a household name and gave Germany’s early 80s cocktail culture a new kick.

Better times rolled in with the fall of the Berlin Wall and cream was soon joined by blenders, sweet-&-sour mixes, fruit preserves and pasteurized juices. The cocktails became (even) more colorful and the bartenders more acrobatic, tossing shakers around in the air in the wake of Tom Cruise’s role in the movie “Cocktail”. But despite all that and the emphasis on fun and games for bartenders and their creations, this period was also increasingly dogged by a creeping lack of creativity behind the bar. Craftsmanship transmutated into a sell-out, and cream became the go-to glue holding together the fantasy of tropical drinks for every Tom, Dick and Harry bartender in every Tom, Dick and Harry bar.

Ultimately, more and more people began rejecting these creamy potions and declared the Cocktail Renaissance, with cream as one of its most well-known victims. From this point on cream was scorned and rarely used. “Serious” bartenders with their fingers on the pulse of the latest trends now furled their brow when a Piña Colada was ordered. It was only with the advent of the new century that bartenders increasingly began paying tribute to the “old days” and their recipes and techniques. Underscored as well by movie masterpieces like “The Big Lebowski”, cream once again became indispensable and underwent its own, if somewhat more hesitant, renaissance.

2) the star of textures

With all of its special qualities, it’s actually a shame that in many bars cream is still viewed with skepticism and relegated to a life in the shadows. Cream is basically nothing more than a dairy product created by the act of “creaming”, in which emulsified dairy fats are separated as a result of low density and then rise to the top then as the cream we know. This can then be skimmed off and beaten or mixed into whipped cream.

The sweetened cream that we use primarily for cocktails contains high levels of fat, at least 30%. The name “whipped cream” stems from the fact that its high fat content makes it stiff after beating, and this makes it an ideal topping for drinks “topped” off with a smooth texture (in the event that you wouldn’t rather use espuma or similar products instead).

3) shake, layer, blend?

And this brings us to why cream is not a favorite ingredient behind the bar. Like almost no other ingredient, cream requires the right handling and the right touch. Bartenders know that a drink with cream takes more time than others. For example, let’s go back to cream’s consistency. Cream has to be stored cool, because the fat globules only retain the stability required for beating when they’re cold. Since there’s hardly any room for a whisker alongside a shaker and strainer, bartenders are left with the choice of using a blender or more traditional methods. While using a blender takes a while, adding the coil from a Hawthorne cocktail strainer into a shaker together with the cream produces fantastic results in a flash.

There is also the question of the drink: When is cream shaken with a drink, and when is it layered (adding a horizontal cream layer to the drink)? Cream’s magic often lies in how it’s used as a textural element. Simply adding it straight into a drink is often a disaster. But when cream is added in a layer on a finished drink it works wonders, and frequently creates a wonderful break-line, a contrast between liquid and solid, between tart and creamy.

4) brilliant contrasts

This brings us to using cream. Let’s say we’re making a Flip with egg yolk and Licor 43 with milk – both suppliers of fat. So what do we do with cream? Since whipped cream takes on a sweet character when it’s beaten, especially when nitrogen cartridges are used in a cream whipper, the contrasting combination of the bright, light sweet cream and the dark, mature spirit is truly compelling. After all, it’s no coincidence that chocolate notes and coffee flavors joined with cream are the cocktail of choice for “the Dude” in “The Big Lebowski” (whereby Jeff Bridges’ “Dude” regrettably has a penchant for the truly awful “Half & Half”, a condensed milk made half from milk and half from cream).

Combinations like these would be destroyed in an instant with the addition of citrus fruits, which should be avoided at all costs with cream because lemons and lime quickly cause cream to begin flaking. But in addition to the White Russian or Brandy Alexander, there are still numerous other drinks like the wintry Irish Coffee to praise in cream’s renaissance in today’s bar culture. The high calories and density of these cocktails make them ideal as classic dessert drinks and the perfect sweet touch to top off a delightful evening.

But remember one thing: Precisely because of its high fat content, cream is not the partner you’re looking for in refined, delicately complex drinks made on a gin or vodka basis. Cream not only works well with strong, sweetly characteristic drinks; it needs them. Otherwise it quickly becomes one-dimensional. One exception here is the Ramos Gin Fizz from New Orleans, acknowledged meanwhile as a real Champion’s League drink that pushes bartenders to their limit: Cream, gin, egg white and citrus are wrestled and shaken for minutes at a time into a creamy, rich sorbet-type emulsion. The resulting cocktail is so unique however that we can’t really speak of a classic Fizz here.

In a way, it’s fair to say that cream loves the “grand gesture”, that it likes tooting its own horn. It also spreads a fine film of fat throughout the mouth that prevents the palate from fully appreciating the delicate fruity flavors that a gentle aperitif offers. So if you want to add a touch of fluffiness to lighter drinks, you’re better off going with something like the far more discreet espuma.

5) then and now

Coffee says to cream, “Hey, come on in!” Cream replies, “OK. I guess it’s better than getting beaten up”. While admittedly a little stale, this aphorism still contains a nugget of truth about how cream was used earlier and how it’s used today. In its past heyday, cream was an essential component of tropical, juice-laden drinks. But with the return of today’s “Age of Reason” and a greater appreciation for classic bar culture, the approach to cream is more about how to use it sensibly, and this usually has to do with texture.

This illustrates a fundamental difference in the corresponding techniques. While cream used to be poured straight into the shaker, today it is often used with greater variety together with other ingredients in a “whipper” and symbolizes the sweet contrast to a heavy drink instead of simply adding to a creamy, usually colorful overall consistency. And even though cream has never really become an essential player behind the bar and likely never will, it has certainly taken on the role of an acclaimed and respected “supporting player” in today’s bar culture.


Translation by J.J. Collier.


Foto: Cream via Shutterstock. Post: Tim Klöcker.