Locally-sourced dairy milk is the star ingredient in Split, New Alchemy Distilling’s new ready-to-drink (RTD) product and the result of five years of R&D.
The company, which was recently selected among the finalists of the Real California Milk Excelerator and will receive at least $30,000 towards developing and finding markets for its RTD product, had never experimented with a dairy-based drinks before. “This was certainly a component of what took a great deal of time for us in our learning process in making Spilt Clarified Milk Punch,” Matt Sweeney, co-founder of New Alchemy Distilling, told DairyReporter.
Figuring out how to make a shelf-stable canned cocktail without chemical stabilizers or preservatives, without secondary pasteurization, and only using the six ingredients took years of testing, we were told.
How is milk punch made?
Clarified milk punch is made up of alcohol, milk and flavors such as spices, citrus, coffee or fruit. Everything is mixed except for the milk, which is only introduced at the end, causing the mixture to split. The curds are then strained, leaving a clear liquid.
But how did Sweeney and his team even get attached to the idea of creating a clarified milk punch? “Our approach to product development has always had a focus on the craft cocktail movement,” he explained. “Cocktails, maybe next to jazz music, are one of the US’ most important cultural inventions. Clarified milk punch is a classic cocktail – it was popular around the time of the American revolution; Benjamin Franklin, in particular, was a big fan. A few very high-end cocktail bars have been making these cocktails over the last decade, but the issue is that they are very labor- and time-intensive to make at a bar.”
The cocktail is also very shelf-stable - the mixture fine to drink for around a year - meaning that the RTD format instantly seemed suitable. “Typically, RTDs have the flaw that the batch format and the time between production and consumption by the customer makes them taste less like a cocktail in a bar,” Sweeney said. “Milk punch actually doesn’t have that issue as this has always been a pre-batched cocktail that needs time - days/weeks, minimum - to make.”
The company had been involved in R&D, reformulation, contract production and consulting with several other RTD brands – including acquiring one recently - so the team felt it already had experience with the format.
But while the idea of making a large batch of the cocktail mixture might sound simple enough, coming up with the final product required a much longer timeframe. And while many RTD cocktails are full of preservatives and artificial colors, New Alchemy Distilling wanted Split to be a clean-label affair, ending up with just six, all-natural, ingredients - the company's own Fleurette Gin, citrus amaro, bergamot tea, fresh lemon and orange juice, and clarified milk.
How difficult was that to muster? “We spent a lot of time trialing different filtration techniques,” Sweeney told us. “Everything from plate filtering, bag filtering, tangential flow, to centrifuge. We found that minimizing our intervention was very important – each time we transfer, pump, and run the cocktail through a filter, we risk oxidizing and/or losing important flavor and aromatic qualities in the drink. We did an unreasonable number of matrices of experiments to find out the perfect concentration of bergamot tea infusion, botanical selection for our citrus amaro, proof and flavor concentration of the Fleurette gin that went into the mixture, and how best to maximize the creamy/luscious mouthfeel that we find most exciting about a clarified milk punch cocktail.
“Developing a process that avoided the oxidation of the orange/lemon juices and retained all the lovely aromatics of Fleurette gin, bergamot tea, the fresh juices we use and our own custom citrus amaro were paramount in bringing a canned-cocktail experience that we felt could meet the highest quality cocktail standards we set out for ourselves.”
He added: “Importantly, we realized early on that we could not outsource the manufacturing process for Spilt to a co-packer. Working with a milk product, alcohol products, and the pectin/juice ingredients in a way that resulted in the quality we demanded would require that we have precise control over every aspect of production.”
Still, there was a collaboration – with California-based dairy Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company, which supplies the milk for the punch. "Two of our owners live in and/or grew up in Sonoma County,” Sweeney told us. “Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese company is well-known in our area as a family-owned Farmstead dairy – meaning that they control the process of production from the cows themselves to the final packaged cheese product.
“One of our owners, Chandra Somerby, had a cheesemaker friend who connected us to Kuba, the cheesemaker at Point Reyes. Through Kuba, we met Lynn and Jill Giacomini, owners of the dairy. We have had many conversations around shared values, shared target audiences, and synergies in our product streams.”
“Knowing that canned cocktails continue to be going through a double-digit growth phase as a product category, and knowing that our 21+ year old Gen Z and Millennial demographic are driving the segment, we wanted to make sure our customers knew that we selected a dairy partner so that they could feel confident in the impact of their purchase both on the well-being of the cows who’s milk we are using, the impact of the dairy both on the sustainability of the natural environment and watersheds surrounding their farms, but also the emissions impact and total life-cycle impacts of Spilt Clarified Milk Punch.”
According to Sweeney, Split is the epitome of locally-made. “Everything from the citrus juice to the wine we use to distil our gin and amaro to the upcycled rennet-produced whey we are using represents ingredients that literally grow in our own back yards,” he said.
How hard was it to keep the label so 'clean'? “It was very difficult to achieve,” Sweeney said, adding that his and his fellow co-founder biochemistry backgrounds came into use. "Having a robust understanding of the way the acids in the citrus, a high-proof distillation of Fleurette Gin and amaro would stabilize the milk from our partner dairy – meticulously purging our tanks, hoses and pumps with argon gas, rapidly chilling the mixture as soon as it was put in the holding tank, etc. all contributed to our success,” he explained.
As for shelf-life, Sweeney said the company has cans of earlier R&D canned batches that had stood up to over a year of ‘harsh’ temperature fluctuations in one of its warehouses in Sacramento. “We have a great deal of confidence in the shelf stability from the standpoint of safety," he said. "So far, the flavors of the cocktail likewise seem to perform well for up to a year at least. We hope that we never have to make a can that takes that long to be purchased, but we do feel the stability is a meaningful quality for the product to perform well in the market.”
So, besides a younger generation of connoisseurs, who else is this product targeting? “We know that there remains a large segment of the customer base who have never heard of a clarified milk punch cocktail,” Sweeney said. “While nearly all high-end bartenders are very excited about the cocktail category, the mass market is likely still new to the category. We look forward to being a first-mover of sorts in this regard. We hope that, as more people see these drinks in their favorite bars and restaurants, and in our case, as they experience it out of a can there will be organic growth of clarified milk punch in the RTD cocktail space.”
With Split having recently made its tradeshow debut – at August’s Wine Country Distillery Festival – what feedback did the company receive? Sweeney said that those that had tried Split had been ‘surprised and delighted’ by the experience. “Without sounding overly confident, we received a ton of positive feedback. We kept hearing, 'I was told to come try your milk-punch!' The other vendors were coming to us and we got a lot of requests for refills. People wanted to know where and when they could purchase the product as well.
“As with anything, there was a small segment that were unwilling to try the product because of our use of milk. More often, people who were initially hesitant found that they loved it once they tried it.”
Still, this could well be a product ideal for a niche market more than anything else. As Sweeney admitted: “We know that canning a clarified milk punch demands a lot of our consumers. It is a story about history and about the relationship of citrus juice with milk solids and about filtration and mouthfeel and the softening and melding of the tannins in the tea and amaro.”
As for where you can taste Split, New Alchemy Distilling is self-distributed throughout California and works with distributors in New York and since recently, in Texas. “We have existing relationships with retail chains like Whole Foods Market, Nugget Market, Andronico’s, as well as a number of independent specialty grocery and bottle shops,” Sweeney said. “We are actively sending them ingredient lists and pitch-decks as we speak. We have a sales team that are additionally targeting concert-halls, boutique hotel groups, country clubs, golf courses, and so on.”
While the company isn’t selling Split direct-to-consumer yet – Sweeney stating that scaling up would be ‘a problem we would love to have’ and the company is currently looking to move into a new production facility for space purposes – the distillery is working with third-party partners in an e-commerce capacity. “Most likely over 90% of sales will be through our on and off-premise retail partnerships,” said Sweeney. “We have priced Spilt Clarified Milk Punch with a desire for it to land on the shelves at around $5 per can or $20 per 4-pack. Our pricing to distribution/retail includes enough space that retailers should be able to find discount below that final pricing, and there is a volume-based discount structure as well,” he added.
The company is donating 5% of sales profits from Split to the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, a farmland trust with a mission to protect Marin county’s agricultural land.
Concluding, Sweeney said: “We know that there will be a significant amount of hand-selling the milk punch. Growth will rely on our ability to tell the story of the product, for people to tell each other about it, and most importantly for our customers to try the product themselves.”