For all of its festive flair, Eggnog, when you think about it, can be kind of a bummer. It’s often way too thick, it doesn’t pair well with food, and it’s packed full of extra calories that no one really needs this time of year.
A better alternative to mugs of the viscous nutmeg-garnished sip? It’s very distant cousin, clarified milk punch. Also called English milk punch, or clear milk punch, it’s a style of drink that has been around since the 17th century. (Colonial Americans had a taste for it too.) It admittedly takes some time to make, but the unique results can be well worth the effort.
“Milk punch is a fascinating mistress and holds up incredibly well with almost anything,” says Gareth Howells, the beverage director at The VNYL in New York City. “The milk post-break has an amazing ability to harmonize and soften almost anything you can throw into it.”
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Howells has had several different iterations on the menu at The VNYL, including the 1862, with Copper & Kings American brandy, Hennessy VS Cognac, Batavia arrack, pineapple, lemon, clove, coriander, Ceylon green tea, demerara sugar and milk. The coolest thing about milk punch? If it’s filtered properly and has a high enough ABV, it can last just about indefinitely in the fridge, where it can continue to mellow and evolve.
He’s currently working on a four-month barrel-aged version with Avión tequila. “Milk punch really is the sum of its component parts,” he says. “It has a beautiful silken mouthfeel and, if made properly, a really well-rounded body.”
“The interest in clarified milk punch even centuries ago was due to the fact that the process left a product that would keep even at room temperature,” says Joel Schmeck, the lead bartender at Irving Street Kitchen in Portland, Ore. This is a fact that no doubt appealed to our cold-storage-challenged colonial forebearers. Schmeck keeps his punch chilled and believes it tastes best within the first few months of preparation.
Schmeck says it’s the quality of ingredients rather than the method of clarification that produces the best results. Though most recipes call for scalding the milk, he has had nearly the same success with it right out of the fridge. Most important is to use fresh, nonhomogenized organic whole milk, which has the most collected fat. His Lemon Bar Clarified Milk Punch mixes graham-cracker-infused clarified milk with Flor de Caña four-year-old rum, Licor 43 liqueur, Amaro Nonino Quintessentia, Batavia arrack, regular and Meyer lemons cinnamon, vanilla and nutmeg.
“The beauty of clarification is the process by which impurities are removed and ingredients meld together,” says Schmeck. “Milk punch is often bright and citrusy, refreshing yet spicy, and has a plethora of variable flavor profiles.” He views it as a great alternative for a seasonal winter cocktail but says it’s appealing any time of year.
For the Clarified Milk Punch at Voltaggio Brothers Steakhouse at MGM National Harbor Resort & Casino in National Harbor, Md. (the oldest of the restaurant’s Timeline Cocktails, dating back to 1670, and described on the menu as Ben Franklin’s favorite punch), the milk is curdled separately by straining it through the same cheesecloth multiple times, which traps the curds and leads to an increasingly clearer liquid. It’s mixed with Bacardí Carta Blanca white rum, Bacardí 151 rum, Buffalo Trace bourbon, Osocalis brandy, Batavia arrack, absinthe, pineapple, oolong tea, bitters and spices, poured over ice and garnished with pineapple leaves and lemon peel.
“It doesn’t have the same thickness and physical appearance of milk but a similar smooth silky mouthfeel,” says Voltaggio general manager Doug Baumann. “It also is [maybe] for people who might be timid of trying a creamy drink; this would be a branch into that world for them.”
South of San Francisco, the coastal burg of Half Moon Bay bills itself as the Pumpkin Capital of the World, with an annual festival and filled patches ready for the plucking. So it only makes sense that the community-driven restaurant The Conservatory at The Ritz-Carlton would pay homage to the orange orbed fruit. But rather than mix up a thick milkshake of a drink, staff opted for something lighter. The Great Pumpkin Punch mixes rum and bourbon with pumpkin, cinnamon, clove, ginger and milk, which is curdled with citrus before the solids are strained out. The drink is soft on the palate, with a lemon tang and a hint of baking spice.
Stephen Kurpinsky, the beverage director at George’s at the Cove in La Jolla, Calif., originally researched milk punch at the suggestion of chef and partner Trey Foshee. “The result was nothing else I’d ever tried before—soft and drinkable even though it had a lot of harsh booze in there,” he says.
He has had different versions on the menu for two years now, including his Follow Your Nose Milk Punch, which is made by macerating Singani 63 brandy, Batavia arrack, mezcal, white rum, dark rum, Pernod absinthe, a pineapple and lemon oleo saccharum, orange blossom oolong tea, cinnamon, cloves, coriander and anise. It’s mixed with milk that has been curdled with lemon juice, left to set for several hours and initially strained through a chinois. The mixture then stays in the wine cellar overnight to separate. The punch is skimmed off the top with a large ladle, then run through a super bag until it’s as clear as possible, then served over ice and garnished with Froot Loops cereal.
He’s also working on a Baja-inspired version, with mezcal, tequila and an oleo saccharum of lemon and prickly pear. So are there any ingredients that don’t work with clarified milk? Kurpinsky says no, because the process adds texture and mouthfeel rather than flavor. He’s even had success with Campari liqueur, whose natural acidity breaks milk into two parts, changing the bitter red Italian aperitivo into something softer, silkier and pink that’s super fun to play with.
Besides, he doesn’t really see the point in using regular milk in drinks, as it can come across as messy and unappealing. “With every sip, you leave a weird milk ring inside the glass reminding you of how much you’ve consumed,” he says. “Why come to a cocktail bar if you can mix brandy and milk at home?”
Get the recipe for the Lemon Bar Clarified Milk Punch here.