Why We Use Egg Whites In Cocktails

The surprising ingredient in many classic drinks

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There are certain ingredients we expect in cocktails: spirits, juices, bitters. But the first time you read the words egg white on the drinks menu can be a bit alarming. Why slip a raw egg white into your drink?

"Egg white is a pretty common ingredient in classic cocktails," Jim Kearns, beverage director and partner at The Happiest Hour and Slowly Shirley in Manhattan, says. "It adds a soft, pillowy element to the texture of the drink."

Egg whites also produce a beautiful pale layer that floats on top of the drink—"it's like the head on a Guinness," Kearns says. "Tight, small bubbles in a frothy head that sticks around." The surface is ideal for decorating with drops of bitters or highlighting a brightly colored garnish.

You'll find an egg white in any Peruvian pisco sour; many recipes for the whiskey sour in historic cocktail books include one as well. Other classics, like the gin-raspberry clover club, also call for an egg white. So, too, do any number of modern mixologists' creations.

Don't expect an egg white cocktail to taste, well, eggy. "If you're using a whole egg, that's a different story," Kearns says. "But the whites are almost completely flavorless." It's the texture, not the taste, that comes through.

Making a cocktail with an egg white can seem intimidating (really, even drinking one can seem intimidating). But shaking up an egg white drink is nearly as easy as any other. The key difference is the "dry shake." For most cocktails, the ingredients are combined, and then shaken hard with ice—the shake you see from every bartender the world over. When there's an egg white involved, the ingredients are first shaken together without ice; that's the "dry shake," which lets the egg white whip up and emulsify. Then ice is added and the cocktail shaken again for the "wet shake," which chills the drink down.

Of course, it's smart to be cautious when working with raw eggs, just as you would be when making fresh mayonnaise or a Caesar dressing. If you get any hint of an off smell, don't use it. The fresher, the better. And while some bars will measure out egg whites by the half ounce—a messy, gloopy process, if you think about their texture—Kearns sees no need. "If you separate an egg correctly, the whites will just bloop right out."

One egg white per cocktail—thankfully, an easy rule to remember.

Carey Jones is a New York-based food and travel writer and the author of Brooklyn Bartender: A Modern Guide to Cocktails and Spirits. Follow her on Twitter at @careyjones.