Bartenders Are Obsessed With Milk Punch Because It’s Delicious and a Little Bit Dangerous

Eamon Rockey Bartenders Are Obsessed With Milk Punch Because It’s Delicious and a Little Bit Dangerous

5 minute Read

Cameron Bogue is the most skilled bartender you’ve probably never heard of. A Canadian wunderkind, for many years he helmed Bar Pleiades, a mainstay on NYC’s buttoned-up Upper East Side and an unlikely showcase for some of the city’s most inspiring cocktails.

One night, about 10 years ago, Cameron Bogue changed my life.

At the time, I was tending bar at Eleven Madison Park, a white-tablecloth dining room in Manhattan’s Flatiron district. One evening my colleague Shiraz Noor and I took a trip to Bar Pleiades and sat slack-jawed by the drinks Bogue prepared. Then, Bogue pulled one last trick from up his sleeve.

“You guys wanna see the easiest drink ever?” he asked, setting two ordinary, ice-filled Collins glasses on the bar.

Bogue grabbed a bottle of clear liquid from the refrigerator behind him, unceremoniously filled the glasses, and sprinkled a little nutmeg on top as he scooted them toward us.

It was the first sip of Clarified Milk Punch I’d ever had, and it was a revelation.

As the name implies, this is a punch that’s made with milk yet is paradoxically perfectly clear. It may strike you as a very modern undertaking, made possible by fancy lab equipment and scientific know-how. Incredibly, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Milk punch was probably first made in the late 1600s by a young British woman named Aphra Behn. She made her name and living as a writer, though she had also been recruited to serve as a royal spy in her early life. She’s likely the one who discovered that by combining a boozy spirit with tea, fresh citrus juice, and warm milk, the resultant curdled mess could be carefully strained to produce a drink that tastes like the sum of its parts and is as clear as water.

For nearly 400 years, milk punch was made this way. Nathanial Whisson & Co. had the honor of selling the first commercialized version in the mid-19th century; the company was named “Purveyors of Milk Punch to Her Majesty” Queen Victoria. Benjamin Franklin shared his recipe for the peculiar concoction in friendly correspondences with colleagues, and a milk punch recipe can be found in the 1887 edition of “The White House Cookbook.” There is even an entry for it in Jerry Thomas’s landmark “Bartender’s Guide (1862).”

It’s a centuries-old drink that has gone in and out of fashion more times than bellbottoms. Now, milk punch is back. Modern bartenders are rediscovering the joys and applications of classic, clarified milk punch and sharing it with their guests. I’m introducing a bottled version, Rockey’s Milk Punch, later this year. It will be the first milk punch available in liquor stores in more than a century.

Part of the appeal is versatility. Milk punch can be made from almost any spirit, combined with nearly any juice, tea, or spice. As long as curdled milk is used to clarify the mixture, milk punch is the result. This allows for nearly infinite flavor variations and recipe riffs for the adventurous bartender to explore.

Scott Baird, founder of Trick Dog in San Francisco, is a longtime fan.

“I could absolutely see myself having a bar that is just straight spirits and milk punch. It’s always a home run,” Baird says.

He believes that on “the roller coaster of flavor,” milk punch is the whole package, combining fruity, tart, bitter, and floral notes in just the right proportions to yield a deliciously crushable beverage. Baird prefers not to “booze them up as much” to ensure that guests can drink a lot of milk punch without getting too tipsy.

At Trick Dog, the drink solicits lots of oohs and ahs from guests. Scott says they give him the “What, you did that how!?” reaction that makes it fun to introduce people to such a unique cocktail. He recalls “a Pina Colada-themed milk punch with a touch of absinthe and Sencha tea” that he stashed in Cryovac bags (typically used for sous-vide cooking) and flew with to Puerto Rico for an event. He says that people freaked out. Even he freaked out.

“I didn’t know it would be that good!” he says. When people occasionally express hesitation about having a milk cocktail, he is quick with his rebuttal: “Do you like having fun? Great, stop being so boring.”

Gareth Howells, the proud Englishman now serving as the U.S. National Brand Ambassador for Dewar’s, cautions, however, that “milk punch can be a fickle mistress.” He has featured versions of the drink on various menus, and says that there is an innate risk “when you make the decision to empty a couple of hundred dollars of booze into a container filled with a number of ingredients that probably have no place being together in any conventional circumstance.”

I can attest to that. No matter how many times one performs this process, the moment after everything is combined, terror inevitably sets in. As you stare down at a gloppy, cloudy, expensive bucket load of individually tasty ingredients, the process simply doesn’t seem like it should work, and you begin to resign yourself to being stuck with a murky vat of undrinkable regret. Then, you strain it and it passes through tasty and clear — usually.

As with anything, the more milk punch you make, the better you get at it. Gareth’s resilient attitude gave way to modern innovations to a process that had been more or less unchanged since its invention. He was one of the first bartenders to successfully place milk punch on draft to retain freshness and further streamline its service. Later, he even created a superb barrel-aged variety that was unique.

Another cocktail trendsetter, Nico de Soto, of New York City’s Mace, has featured milk punch front and center on all of his menus for the last seven years. He’s now taking them home to Paris to his new bar, Danico. He’s even developed a warm variety of milk punch to take the chill off cold nights during the holiday season. An extraordinarily talented barman overall, de Soto doesn’t mince words about milk punch.

“It is my favorite cocktail, ever,” he says. “In terms of flavors, layers, and execution, there is no other drink like it.”

As with many of us who hold milk punch at a level of obsession bordering on idolatry, it’s thrilling to push the limits of the technique and the recipes. One might substitute traditionally used tea for coconut or even rice waters. There are no rules.

When it comes to spiking the mix, de Soto’s team at Mace generally prefers overproof booze to keep the cocktails spunky and allow for dilution over ice. Mace has created a milk punch with apples, house-made caramel, and foie gras by using a technique called fat washing, whereby a distillate is infused with the flavor of a very fatty ingredient. The end result has minimal fat and a lot of flavor.

Milk punch can become something of an obsession. On a recent meal at Michelin three-starred L’Arpège, de Soto was surprised by the intense flavor of a dessert the chef had made by steeping bacon into milk, and then producing a mousse with it. His reaction: “F*ck! We need to make this into a milk punch!”

It would be easy to lump clarified milk punch onto the list of drinks that have been resurrected to complement the now-pervasive mustachioed and suspendered barman aesthetic of yesteryear. But it’s more than that. Milk punch is the favorite drink of some of the best in the biz because it represents both our past and our endlessly variable futures. Those of us who love it are committed to keeping it around. Sometimes when history repeats itself, everything becomes clear.

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