Classic cocktail revived: America's Test Kitchen on milk punch

Sep 15, 2017

Milk punch was a popular boozy concoction in Great Britain and colonial America during the 1700s. Despite its cloudy sounding name, the drink was often crystal clear, had a wonderfully rich body, and was flavored with a wide range of spirits, fruits, and spices. After the 18th century, milk punch faded into obscurity. Thanks to the savvy skills of modern mixologists, we’re seeing a milk punch renaissance. Managing Producer Sally Swift talks with Dan Souza from America’s Test Kitchen about the science and process used to make the cocktail. Make milk punch for your next party with recipes for Mary Rockett’s Citrus Milk Punch and Black Tea-Port Milk Punch.

Sally Swift: You recently brought up the idea of talking about milk punch on the show – which I was totally grossed out by. But, here you are to defend the idea of milk punch, correct?

Dan Souza: I am. The important thing to understand is there are two kinds of milk punch. There's one that's very popular in New Orleans, and it's creamy because it actually has milk in the finished cocktail.

But the kind that I want to talk about is called clarified milk punch, and it's really cool. It may be a little gross at one point in the making of it, but the end product is amazing. It's an old technique that dates back to the 1700s. What you're essentially doing is adding dairy products – usually milk, but it can be half and half or other dairy – to a premade punch made with a lot of brandy, lemon, and sugar. When the milk hits the acidic, alcoholic liquid, it curdles much like when you're making ricotta. The proteins coagulate and grab all kinds of stuff that's suspended in the drink; a lot of those things mess with the clarity of the drinks, so most cocktails are cloudy. This grabs all that and it settles it into a raft. If you strain that off, what you're left with is a crystal clear and gorgeous cocktail.

The oldest published milk punch recipe is from the early 1700s in David Wondrich's lovely book called Punch. The book is a great treatise on the history of punch in general. He has a recipe for Mary Rockett's Milk Punch, which is becoming quite popular in bars again. You see people getting creative; they’re making punches with different flavors and different methods of clarifying with milk: they add it hot, they add it cold, they use half and half or other non-dairy creamers.

SS: Are you doing all of this per serving, or do you make a big batch of the punch mix?

DS: One of the cool things is that the process preserves the beverage, so you can make a relatively large batch. We have recipes that produce a quart of cocktail, and you can keep it in your fridge for months. When Charles Dickens died, they found bottles of milk punch in this cellar. They don't know how old they were, but they were fine. What’s most interesting is when you strip out a lot of the volatile compounds that you find in lemons, especially in citrus, you stabilize it. So, if it's refrigerated it can last for a long time. A big boon to bars is they're able to make a big batch of milk punch ahead of time, and then it's super easy to serve. Sometimes it's poured over an ice cube, sometimes it's just poured straight off into an iced glass. You have beautiful clarity, so you can see right through it. It has a hint of color from whatever it was made with, but that belays what you end up tasting. It doesn't seem like it would have that much flavor.

SS: I'm dying to taste it now; you’ve turned me around. What kind of booze do you use in your recipe?

DS: Brandy is a common base, and so is rum; a lot of classic punches were made with both of those. One of my favorite ones is black tea-port milk punch. It’s got brewed black tea, port, and rum; it’s inky dark before you clarify it. Then you add the milk to clarify it, strain it out, and it looks like a blush rosé wine. It’s absolutely gorgeous, and you would have no idea that that's where the color came from.

Another interesting thing about milk punch is the texture you get out of it is rich and silky. The reason is, when the milk curdles, you're only curdling one kind of protein – casein proteins. That's what happens when you make cheese as well. What's left behind are whey proteins. You've heard of curds and whey? The whey proteins are left behind, and they add a lot of body to the drink. Body is the rich thickness that we get in a wine that has aged for a long time. Milk punch has more body than you'd expect. It’s a clear liquid, but when you go to sip it, you're wowed by how much flavor and richness you get out of it.

SS: Punch always sounds so British to me. Is it British in origin?

DS: Yes. The British were the first to put punch on the map, but it also became very popular in colonial America. It’s an old technique that wasn’t a big deal, then it died out for about 150 years. It wasn't until modern bartenders and the mixology era came in that we started to see it again. Now you can find it in a lot of bars and they're doing just crazy stuff with it – maybe they'll use tequila and pineapple. There are certain bars that will rotate out a new milk punch on offer all the time; they're really fun to try.

SS: I am sold. You did it.

DS: Alright! Good! You're on the milk punch train.