Like the old fashioned, the milk punch has evolved into two distinctive versions over the past few centuries. Though they share some ingredients—liquor, sweetener, dairy, and vanilla among them—the methods used to make each cocktail are quite different. Even more striking is how these different preparations result in drastically different taste and appearance.

The more modern version is an easily recognizable New Orleans brunch staple. The easiest way to describe it is as an egg-less eggnog. It’s a heavy, rich, single-serve cocktail—just what the doctor would order after a night out on Bourbon Street. This version is designed to be enjoyed immediately while cold; it will quickly go bad if left in the fridge.

In contrast, the older milk punch recipe is clear—when it’s made right. Despite its appearance, the texture and flavor maintain the silkiness and richness of dairy without the weight. Centuries ago, this punch would have been made in large batches for groups of drinkers to enjoy. 

Clarification also served a more mundane purpose: preventing spoilage. In the days before refrigeration, bartenders and cooks alike had to get creative to keep fruits, vegetables, and milk from going bad. Clarification removes many of the perishable compounds in the milk, and the resulting cocktail can be aged for months or years without turning.

It also improved the taste of the liquor, according to Eamon Rockey, general manager of the New York City restaurant Betony. Rockey spoke at a seminar about milk punch at Tales of the Cocktail, an industry event held in New Orleans in July. “The spirits of today are much more refined than what was available a couple centuries ago,” he says. Clarification would remove some of the chemical compounds that made the spirit taste less than wonderful, rendering it smoother and much more drinkable.

TECHNIQUE, TECHNIQUE, TECHNIQUE

How, exactly, bartenders clarified their milk punch several centuries ago is a matter of debate. “Descriptions of the exact [clarification] technique vary,” Rockey said. According to cocktail historian David Wondrich in Punch!, milk was added to punch and allowed to curdle. Its addition makes “a disgusting mess that when strained out leaves a Punch that is not only clear but also exceptionally smooth and creamy-tasting without actually being creamy,” Wondrich wrote

The story of its birth some 300 years ago is also lively. "It's attributed to a promiscuous playwright named Aphra Behn," Rockey said. "Though it’s unclear whether it’s true.” Wondrich is inclined to give Behn credit, especially because she was a lover of punch in all forms, if her plays are any indication.

As with most things, milk punch has fallen in and out of favor throughout the centuries. Its status as a rather complicated beverage certainly didn’t help. Despite its lack of consistent popularity, it makes occasional appearances in the historical record. The most interesting is a recipe that Benjamin Franklin writes in a letter to friend and colleague James Bowdoin with the introduction “Herewith you have the Receipt you desired.” 

From there, the drink largely disappears until it is reimagined as the more modern New Orleans classic. Recently, however, the classically clarified punch has been making a comeback on cocktail menus around the country (including Betony). Long live the milk punch. 

HIT THE LAB

Milk Punch (traditional)
Modified from Punch! 

8 lemons
1 gallon of brandy or mild rum
1 gallon of water
2 pounds of raw sugar
2 quarts of whole milk (raw if available)
2 nutmegs

Using a fine vegetable peeler, peel the lemons, and set the fruits aside. Soak the peels in the brandy for 24 hours and add the water and sugar. Squeeze the eight lemons into the brandy mixture. Bring the milk to a boil. Add the milk to the brandy mixture. Strain gradually through a tightly woven cloth, replacing the cloth when too many milk solids accumulate. Bottle and refrigerate until solids precipitate in the bottom. Siphon off the clear liquid, rebottle, and store.