This 1700s Cocktail Method Is Having a 21st Century Moment

This 1700s Cocktail Method Is Having a 21st Century Moment

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Oh, milk punch, a fickle, delicious icon of the cocktail world.
Strap in, thirsty friends, this is a juicy, clarifying read. You’ve probably heard of milk punch, or seen it in passing on a bar menu. Although it first emerged to the curious modern drinker in the early aughts, milk punch didn’t really hit the mainstream until the early 2010s.

I was first introduced to Clarified Milk Punch in all its tasty glory in 2015 via the brilliant hospitality and skilled enthusiasm of bartender Gareth Howells. I’m sure lots of talented folks in the beverage industry were making exciting milk punches at the time, but it was Howells—who was running the drinks program at Forrest Point bar in Brooklyn (RIP) at the time—that taught me what milk punch is and why it is so extraordinary.

That said, let’s go back to the beginning. After all, good drinks always taste better when there’s a little history behind them.

Many don’t yet realize this, but the pioneers who brought alcoholic drinks to the fore centuries ago were more often than not, women. Beer? Women. Wine? Women. Spirits, liqueurs and cordials? Also, women. As it turns out, milk punch is no different. (Though, unlike beer and wine, milk punch was not created to avoid sickness from drinking non-potable water.)

The invention of the Clarified Milk Punch—not to be confused with the creamy, nog-esque variation just known as milk punch or New Orleans Milk Punch—is largely credited to Aphra Behn, a 17th-century English author, and playwright, who also worked as a royal spy for King Charles II (#goals). There are additional theories that credit the origins to another British gal, Mary Rockett, who is recognized as the first person to actually write down her milk punch recipe in 1711. Either way, both ladies made a lasting global impact on drinking culture as we know it today.

If you’ve sipped a milk punch before, you know that it’s glassy and clear—not opaque and creamy like its name implies—which is an aesthetically decadent result of clarification. Giving a complex, explosive melody of flavors with a luxurious, velvety texture, the milk punch has grown to be revered by those who enjoy it.

For context, when building a cocktail recipe maintaining balance is (typically) key. Too much of one ingredient can throw the whole drink off. Not so with milk punch. Literally, more is more. Bartenders around the world have experimented with endless pairings of teas, herbs, cordials, juices, coffees, spices, spirits, and flavor combinations. That’s the beauty of the cocktail: There are really no rules when it comes to the palate. As long as you’re mixing everything in the right order (more on that later), get as weird as you like. It’s a fever dream of flavor, and not only that, the drink is notorious for packing a, well, punch (I’ll see myself out). It’s significantly boozy, but light in body, and is simultaneously both perfectly crushable and elegant—not to mention a major flex for any home bartender to craft.

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If this all sounds great and you’re ready to make your own, it’s maybe time to let you in on the catch. A proper Clarified Milk Punch takes a long time—around two days with numerous procedural steps—to make, so commitment-phobes need not apply. It is a labor of love, labor being the keyword. That said, the reward for putting in the work is oh-so-worth-it.

There are a few important things to note if you want to dive into making your own:

Non-mammal milks simply do not work.
The key to this cocktail is in the curdle; the joining of milk protein molecules that occurs when acid hits the dairy. It’s something that plant-based milk simply cannot replicate. Full-fat milk is recommended, because the fattier the milk, the greater the opportunity for separation of the curds from liquid, thus giving you the clearest end result possible. Skim and low-fat milk often leave undesirable cloudiness in the final result.

Go cold.
Some recipes call for heating your milk before mixing, but the most successful milk punches (in my opinion, anyway) use cold milk, with a clean, clear separation of curds to filter out.

Always add the spirit mixture to the milk, not the other way around.
Pouring the milk into the mixture results in odd, improper curdling that ruins the final clarity.

Have an idea of the flavor combination you’re going for ahead of time.
Plan on ramping up the intensity of your flavor combination because clarification naturally softens and smooths flavors, so some lighter floral or spice elements may get muted.

Even though the final result will be clear, because you’re using dairy milk, there are still going to be traces of lactose present.
If you are lactose-intolerant, tread carefully.

All of this being said, I want to give you more than one option to choose your own milk punch adventure. Below, you’ll find Mary Rockett’s original recipe from 1711 that’s been slightly updated for the modern kitchen. Note that her recipe does call for heating your milk, but using chilled milk is definitely a great alternative.

And if you have neither the time nor the interest in investing multiple days to make your own clarified milk punch, I am a huge fan of mixing my favorite spirit(s) with Rockey’s Botanical Liqueur. Created by bartender and milk-punch-crafting icon Eamon Rockey, this liqueur is a neatly bottled version of his liquid claim to fame (and conveniently lactose-free). Made with a luscious selection of teas, fruits, and citrus—with a neutral grain spirit—Rockey’s is delicious on its own over ice or mixed with your spirit of choice. With a palate that has notes of green tea, ripe citrus, and florals, I prefer mine mixed with a citrus-forward gin, a Japanese shōchū, or an earthy mezcal.

Regardless of which option you choose, I hope you let curiosity and experimentation win, and explore the storied playground of flavors that is milk punch. Happy mixing!

How will you be mixing your milk punch? Let us know in the comments below!

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