The Basics History & Trends

In Pursuit of the Perfect Dairy-Free Milk Punch

R &D is essential to any modern cocktail program, but at Aaron Deary’s bar in Philadelphia, it’s also an ethos—and the name of his business. Since opening R&D in late 2018, Deary and his staff have overhauled the menu every three months, focusing, in turn, on updated Jerry Thomas-era classics, maligned 1950s drinks and Tiki concoctions. His current “Field Guide” menu presents each drink with information on who first made it, where it was created, its cocktail taxonomy and details on R&D’s variation.

Deary has included clarified milk punch on all of his menus but rarely in a form you’d expect. He has served a Clarified White Russian Milk Punch made with vodka, Kahlúa, heavy cream, Scrappy’s bitters and just the faintest touch of citrus to break the curds. And for R&D’s opening list, he couldn’t shake the idea of a Oaxacan Milk Punch. To figure out exactly what that meant, Deary started by mastering an early English milk punch recipe and tweaking the formula until it worked with agave spirits. When it was almost finalized, he realized that people who were dairy-free would never be able to experience the cocktail. His solution: coconut milk.

Aaron Deary stirring a Clarified White Russian Milk Punch at Philadelphia’s R&D. StarChefs / Jaclyn Warren

Like dairy milk or cream, coconut milk is made up of fats, protein and liquid. If you pour some into hot coffee or boil a coconut curry too rapidly, the coconut milk separates and curdles. Most people try to avoid such curdling, but it’s exactly what Deary needed to build a dairy-free milk punch.

For his Oaxacan Milk Punch, Deary combines smoky mezcal, reposado tequila, falernum, passion fruit syrup, grapefruit juice, Ancho Reyes chile liqueur and, in a nod to its English forebear, pear green tea. To facilitate curdling, he heats coconut milk to 140°F (as opposed to 170°F for dairy) and slowly pours the milk and lime juice over the top of the mixture. He then rests the punch for one hour at room temperature and one hour in the refrigerator before straining it through cheesecloth and coffee filters.

Deary uses the same technique for a Paloma Milk Punch on his current menu. The drink is textured, subtly herbal, fresh and vaguely familiar—a Paloma after a day of self-care and nip-tucking. With tequila, hoja santa, Chinese five-spice, tarragon, grapefruit, coconut milk and club soda, he admits that calling it a Paloma is a bit of a stretch. But without spices, Deary says it wouldn’t be a milk punch either. “It’s about taking something that people recognize and combining it with something they’ve never seen before,” he says.

Deary and bartender Resa Mueller also developed a Soy Milk Punch for a Chinese New Year’s celebration. The soy milk proved more tedious and time-consuming, but they found a sweet spot in heating the milk to 170°F and allowing the punch to rest for six to eight hours before straining. “It had to sit for much longer before everything rounded out,” says Deary. The drink had Irish whiskey, aged rum, espresso, black tea, satsuma syrup, Chinese five-spice, lemon and soy milk. “People loved it, but it’s weird as fuck.”

Soy Milk Punch for Chinese New Year at R&D. palagophilly

Deary expects to list three milk punches on his winter menu, titled “Now That’s What I Call Cocktails.” And he’s toying with the idea of a clarified rum and Coke float. “We want to be as approachable as possible while pushing our limits,” he says.

For now, R&D is limited to dairy, coconut and soy milk punches. Experiments with almond milk proved to be a bust. Oat milk was even worse. But Deary is determined to keep tinkering. “I found pea milk the other day, and I’m going to try it,” he says. “I think I can figure out almond milk, too, but it’s hard to keep up. It’s not like these take two minutes to make.”

When preparing any milk punch at home, Deary suggests using a vessel with a large surface area and making small batches until you get the hang of the process. “It’s easy to get the curdling wrong. You might not get it the first time, but keep trying,” he says, For better control, he recommends pouring the milk and citrus from containers with a lip or spout. “Take the citrus in one hand and milk in the other, and slowly pour them around the circumference of the punch,” says Deary. “It’s science in front of your face.”