How to Make Clarified Milk Punch
Clarified milk punch seems like a liquid enigma. How can something clear—aka clarified—emerge from something cloudy, like milk? It’s science, baby. The chemical sorcery that occurs between milk, acid and alcohol begets hauntingly transparent drinks with silky textures, many of them with a pedigree older than the birth of the republic. Here’s everything you need to know.
What Is Milk Punch?
Punch purportedly gained its name from the Hindi word for five, paanch, and describes a proto-cocktail of five components: spirit, sweetener, citrus, water and spices.
When milk is introduced into this mix, the cocktail becomes milk punch. While creamy milk punches are prevalent throughout the American South, clarified milk punch is the so-called English style of the drink. It’s created through a sort of alchemy: Milk is prompted to curdle, binding certain particles in the punch, which are strained away, leaving a translucent liquid.
The History of Clarified Milk Punch
Milk punch entered the bar repertoire at least a century before the word cocktail even crept into English during the early 1800s. The arrack-based punches of southeast Asia were diffused westward via trade routes, and began appearing in London in the 1600s, writes historian David Wondrich, author of Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl.
Blending milk and cream with beer, wine and spirits was a common practice in Stuart-era England, where curdled milk-based drinks, like posset and syllabub, were part of the drinking culture. Clarification drew out a punch’s coarser elements, as well as lending it shelf stability.
In colonial America, a verve for brandy and a burgeoning rum industry supplied the base spirits for nutmeg-laced punches, including milk punch. In 1763, Benjamin Franklin sent a recipe for his version to a contemporary that called for adding boiling milk to lemon zest-infused brandy, then letting it stand until straining. To the final result, he advised adding “a sphere of ice.”
Milk punch was also a favorite of Queen Victoria, according to an 1838 royal warrant specifying her favorite producer of the stuff. It also appeared in Jerry Thomas’ seminal 1862 book Bartenders Guide and in the early aughts, experienced a revival among bartenders in New York City and elsewhere.
What Does “Clarified” Mean in a Drink?
In essence, clarifying a liquid removes impurities that render it cloudy. Almost anything can be clarified, from wine to tomato juice. With milk punch, adding milk to alcohol compels the milk’s casein proteins to bind to the polyphenols in a spirit, a process outlined in Dave Arnold’s book Liquid Intelligence: The Art and Science of the Perfect Cocktail. The curds that form strip away bitter and astringent notes in the spirit and leave a supple texture and secondary arc of flavor.
“When you first get a [clarified] cocktail, the looks can be underwhelming,” says Jonathan Stanyard, an award-winning Seattle-based bartender and consultant who has created recipes for cachaca milk punch and soju milk punch, among others. “But the aroma, flavor and texture hit all of the marks. You take a sip, and there’s body and mouthfeel more than just a typical stirred drink.”
What Do You Need to Clarify Milk Punch?
The three essential ingredients when making a clarified milk punch are some kind of milk, spirit and acid.
Lina Tran, head bartender at Jelas, a New York City bar focused on clarified cocktails, says the type of milk can affect both flavor and texture. “Condensed milk will give a thick body and sweetness,” says Tran, who uses it to wash vodka for clarified Vietnamese coffee. Also on her menu is a liquid riff on Che Chuoi, a dessert her Vietnamese grandmother used to make, and a Singapore Sling with whole-milk-washed Greenhook Gin. Of the latter, she says, “It has a depth of flavor and is light at the same time.”
Rémi Massai, a Paris-based bartender and cocktail consultant has made clarified blue mai tais with multiple types of milk, including whole and coconut.
Also essential is an acid, such as lemon juice (preferred by Massai) or citric acid. “I have a go-to citric-malic acid blend of three [part citric acid] to one [part malic acid],” says Stanyard. She also recommends adding brewed tea to spirits or punch beforehand, which lends additional layers of aroma and flavor to the punch and counterbalances excessive sweetness.
How to Make a Milk Punch
If you’ve ever made ricotta or another fresh cheese, you’ve seen this process in action. Making milk punch involves combining your spirit and ingredients of choice, like dark rum and spices, then adding those to warm milk along with an acid, such as lemon juice or citric acid.
The milk will break and begin to curdle; over the course of several hours, the solids will fall to the bottom of the vessel. Once you strain them off with cheesecloth, coffee filters or another method, clarified milk punch is born.
How Long Does It Take to Clarify Milk Punch
Patience is key, and the wait depends on the spirits involved. At Jelas, Tran said it takes two to three days to batch each cocktail. “The spirits have to sit overnight,” says Tran.
“You have to wait two hours minimum, and sometimes 24 hours,” adds Massai.
Clarified Milk Punch Recipes to Try
Journey to the Milky Way
This low-abv clarified blend of Chardonnay, Sauternes and falernum is sweetened with pineapple gum syrup and has a luxe texture. Clarified with whole milk, the cocktail’s pristine looks belie layers of spice and warmth.
Get the full recipe here: Journey to the Milky Way
A Key Lime Pie Meets Milk Punch Cocktail
Sometimes clarified punches can distill favorite desserts into liquid form. This riff on the Key West staple cinches together Key limes, milk, Cognac and graham crackers. Are there crackers actually in the drink? In a manner, yes.
Get the full recipe here: A Key Lime Pie Meets Milk Punch Cocktail
Milk (Tea) Punch
Colonial punch-makers went big or went home—always making enough for everyone at a wedding or funeral. This recipe transforms milk tea into a clarified gin punch that regains grip from orange pekoe tea. It makes 40 servings.
Get the full recipe here: Milk Tea Punch
A Milk Punch Spritz Surprise
If you want to leave the clarification process to someone else, Eamon Rockey has your back. The longtime New York City bartender (Betony, Eleven Madison Park) created Rockey’s Milk Punch, a bottled clarified punch that brightens this gin-based spritz.
Get the full recipe here: A Milk Punch Spritz Surprise