I’ve done this several times, all with the same result. I hand a patron a translucent, orange-tinged beverage. They look at it curiously and shrug, and I wait for them to take their first sip. First their face wrinkles in confusion. Then there is cautious enjoyment. Then, even more intense confusion. What follows for some is obsession. Milk punch is an odd but classic beverage, one that is baffling many adventurous tipplers into becoming enthusiasts.
Punch, is, of course, notoriously misunderstood. Far from being a sugary, virgin, prom night beverage, classic punch is a boozy but balanced mix of spirit, citrus, tea, sugar, and spice. It dates back to the early 1600s when British sailors first encountered it in India. It’s unclear whether the Indians served it to the Brits as a tourist beverage or if punch was part of Indian drinking culture, but that didn’t matter much to the Brits. They couldn’t get enough of the stuff. Within a hundred years, punch houses were all the rage back in Britain, and the English were mastering the art of punch making. One of the fancier tricks of that day was the curiously crystal clear, shelf-stable tipple: milk punch.
What is milk punch? It is the consommé of beverages: a richly flavored liquid, purged of tint by classic culinary legerdemain. In the case of consommé, a rich, opaque broth is clarified with egg whites, which when gently heated collect all visual impurities in the broth. As the white solidifies the liquid becomes crystal clear. Similarly in milk punch, milk is acidified until it curdles, and the curds transform the left-behind liquid into a confusingly clear but rich beverage. There is one main difference however: whereas the egg whites scrub the broth of impurities and leave no flavor in their wake, the curds in milk punch leave behind a clarified whey that is rich with lactose. This uncommon sugar lends a silky mouthfeel to an already complex beverage. The curds do scrub the liquid of many impurities, so that when they are removed, something bizarre happens: the punch becomes shelf stable at cellar temps. You can store the stuff for quite some time. Charles Dickens had several bottles in his cellar when he died, and so the story goes, it was still delicious and unspoiled when it was later auctioned with the rest of his possessions.
This punch is cycling back into popularity, as history-obsessed bartenders are dusting off the drink and putting their own twist on it. Part of its appeal is, of course, its curious clarity. The other part is that milk punch is damn delicious. It’s a seamlessly integrated beverage that marries spirit, sweet, sour, tea tannins, and the essence of cream in a most harmonious way. It does takes a bit of time to prepare, though. The recipe below takes the better part of a week.
Micah’s basic clarified milk punch
¾ c light rum (Bacardi or
Shellback work nicely)
¾ c aged rum (I like Pusser’s or Appleton’s VX)
1 ½ c milk (whole, non-homogenized milk works best)
peels of 2 limes
peels of 1 orange
¼ c lemon juice
¼ orange juice
peels of 8 lemons
1 c sugar
1 tbsp loose black tea leaves
3 c water
Peel the limes and orange peels, taking as little pith as possible. Add the peels to the rum and infuse overnight. Strain the peels off the rum, and reserve the infused rum.
The next day, heat the water to boil, remove from heat, and add tea. Steep for 10 minutes, then remove and discard the tea leaves. Peel the eight lemons, taking as little white pith as possible. Muddle the peels into the sugar, and let them sit until the sugar draws out the oils from the peels. Add the cooled tea to the oily sugar, and then strain out the peels. Reserve the sweetened lemon tea mixture.
In a saucepan over low heat, bring the milk to 140° F. Promptly remove from heat and add the infused rum and citrus juice to curdle the milk. Gently move the pan to the fridge and store covered for at least 30 minutes to solidify the curds. Pour the mixture gently through a cheesecloth-lined strainer. Add the sweetened tea mixture to the clarified milk mixture, and allow this to rest for one day in a sealed, clear container in the fridge.
After one day, any remaining curds or visual impurities should settle to the bottom, and the liquid above it should be crystal clear. Using a siphon, rack the clear liquid off of the curds, and store the resulting punch. Allow it to rest a few days, and enjoy the punch at your leisure over the next couple of months. Serve with a little fresh grated nutmeg.
The resulting punch should be redolent of tea with milk, lightened, stretched, and fortified over a scaffold of rum and sweetened citrus. The recipe is a great jumping off point for your own experimentation and can be made well in advance of your next party. Happy punch making!