Good tidings, holiday revelers! Glad to see you bright-eyed and bushy-tailed after another baffling session of dashing through the snow. You’re just in time for another dispatch from our month-long Punch Party. Last week, we covered wassail, a fascinating beverage that serves as both a noun and a verb. This week, we’re deviating slightly off course and covering a beverage that is both punchy and not punchy at all; a cocktail that both relies on milk and decries it. This week, we’re talking milk punch.
What is milk punch?
Well, depends on who you ask. There are actually two wildly different cocktail varieties that both fall under the “milk punch” moniker. First, there’s Southern-style milk punch, otherwise known as brandy milk punch or bourbon milk punch. This variation is likely what you picture when you hear the words “milk” and “punch” together. Popular throughout the American South, particularly in New Orleans, Southern-style milk punch is a rich, creamy, eggless eggnog of sorts. It’s classically made with brandy, rum, whole milk, and nutmeg, and you can drink it cold or heat it up for what Serious Eats calls “a rich and potent warmer.” Though the Serious Eats recipe is for an individual cocktail, I could see it scaling up and working well in a group setting. Break out the punch bowl—just keep an eye on the milk to make sure it doesn’t get funky midway through your holiday festivities.
This is where things get wild. Clarified milk punch is pretty much what it sounds like: a cocktail washed with milk, then clarified. When you see “milk punch” on a cocktail menu outside of the southern United States, there’s a good chance you’re getting clarified milk punch. Clarified milk punch also happens to be one of my very favorite boozy drinks.
The origins of the cocktail are murky—much murkier than the drink itself, which is actually crystal clear. Some claim that playwright Aphra Behn invented the drink in the late 1600s, which explains why the drink is often called “English milk punch.” According to legend, Behn is the one who combined booze, tea, fresh citrus juice, and warm milk, creating a curdled mess that could then be strained to produce a delicious, clear concoction. Since then, clarified milk punch has delighted tipplers everywhere.
Today, clarified milk punch is back on cocktail menus. Bartenders love it for its versatility; it can be made with pretty much any spirit, juice, or spice as long as curdled milk is involved in the process. Using the milk, a technique sometimes known as “milk washing,” also softens the edges of harsher spirits, creating highly crushable (read: highly dangerous) cocktails.
Finally, milk punch is prepared in large quantities, making it a great option for holiday festivities. The only thing to consider: the punch is clear, so it might not make for the prettiest punch bowl. Instead, I recommend whipping up a batch (Alton Brown has a pretty straightforward recipe) and dishing it out into fancy cocktail glasses with a fun garnish, like a citrus peel or some candied fruit. Just be prepared to run out fast.