Usually, the milk punch at Brennan’s flows freely during the restaurant’s decadent brunch but barely at all at night. But recently, something unusual happened in New Orleans: It got cold and actually snowed. All of a sudden, dinner guests started ordering the frothy brew, which has been on the menu “forever,” according to lead bartender Lu Brow. A little gust of holiday cheer had swept in. “I was just like, what is up with the Caribbean Milk Punch?” said Brow. “Maybe because it’s cold and it’s the holidays? I must have made like 50 of them.”
I love the Brennan’s milk punch, more than I want to. As a card-carrying cocktail Scrooge, I hate loving something so obviously lovable. I admit: I take a little pleasure when I try to sell a first-timer on Negronis and get a screwed-up angry face when they take a sip; it affirms that we Negroni lovers are special bitter little snowflakes. By contrast, the milk punch at Brennan’s is infinitely affable: bourbon, rum, heavy cream, little flecks of vanilla bean scattered through its snowy depths. That real vanilla bean is key, Brow says: “There’s something about looking down in your glass to see that little speckle. You know it’s good vanilla.”
The Brennan’s milk punch is classic, as creamy and festive as eggnog. But the term “milk punch” requires a little clarification; in fact, clarification is the difference between Brennan’s frothy milk variety and the other style.
That other style, clarified milk punch, has been enjoying a rejuvenation. A trickster’s drink, it contains citrus – usually not a good idea in combination with dairy, as it causes milk to curdle. But here, that’s exactly what you want: The proteins in milk act as a tool, the curds netting up the harsher, sharper notes of citrus and booze. The curds then are strained out of the punch.
Where Brennan’s milk punch shouts its creamy hedonism, clarified milk punch is a slyer, subtler beast. Because it’s perfectly clear, at a glance, you’d never know it had milk in it, but you’ll notice the dairy in the drink’s silken texture. The first time I encountered it, I assumed it was some modernist mixological magic, the sort of concoction produced by brooding Spaniards in a culinary lab, using powders and beakers and possibly a genetically modified cow.
Nope. Per drinks historian David Wondrich, the drink dates to the 1600s; the milk helped cut down on the acidity in traditional punch, which caused some drinkers stomach problems. In Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl, Wondrich writes that milk punch’s agreeableness “didn’t stop it from fading out in the middle of the nineteenth century with the rest of its tribe. Being more complicated to make than most, it would be denied even the half-life accorded to a special-occasion drink.”
I’m happy to see it’s made a comeback.
I’m a fan of both variations of milk punch; both seem to be drinks for special occasions. The creamy version common in New Orleans seems like it should be a rare treat (at least for those of us who wish to remain on the slimmer side of, say, the Hindenburg), and it’s perfect for the curative New Year’s Day brunch after a late evening. And the clarified variety can be a showstopper punch at the party the night before. It takes time to make, but the folks I plan to honky-tonk with on New Year’s Eve are worth it. And I’ll get to spend more time with them, since I’ll have the punch ready to go days beforehand and not have to think about it during the party.
At the Southern-themed Succotash in Washington, the beverage team makes six gallons of the stuff every five days. Once they make a batch, the drink is done – no further mixing work when a guest places an order.
The drink starts out super-boozy, laden with bourbon and rum and amaro, but after it undergoes the milk-washing, it’s a completely different drink. “It’s a boozy cocktail, but it doesn’t taste overly boozy,” says beverage director Brook Vandecar, “and it has the mouthfeel of creaminess without the heaviness.”
There’s another beautiful example on the current tasting menu at the Columbia Room, Washington’s home for thinky drinks. The menu plays off the Hirshhorn exhibition “What Absence Is Made Of.” It’s a great home for a drink like the Clarity, which, said head bartender JP Fetherston, starts out a brilliant, opaque orange (it contains butternut squash, among many other ingredients) but emerges from the clarification process as naked and colorless as vodka.
It’s so perfectly clear that I thought the team must be doing something more complicated (clarification can also be done using agar agar, an algae-derived powder, or a centrifuge). But Fetherston confirms that they went totally old-school. “As much as I love the science side, as a history guy I’m always excited when I find something that’s tried and tested and is actually a very old practice,” he said. “We’re just mixing it up and letting the citrus and alcohol and dairy do its thing.” They filter the drink through a tight felt bag after allowing it to separate.
When I first made a clarified milk punch, I was intimidated by all the talk of curdling and separating and filtering, but I shouldn’t have been. I also should have been more patient: The more time you allow yourself, the less work you’ll have to do. If you wait only a few hours for the milk punch to separate, you’ll have to do a lot more manual filtration of leftover solids. If, on the other hand, you start the process and then store the punch in the fridge for a few days, it will do most of the work for you. The milk solids will fall to the bottom of your pitcher, leaving only the more minute particles for you to filter out manually. With its notes of herbal Chartreuse and pineapple (a classic symbol of hospitality), the recipe here is great for the holidays. But if you’re feeling experimental, you can also use its template to play around with other flavor combinations, using similar proportions of citrus, booze and milk.
And remember: All that waiting time is inactive, leaving you free to go out and fight the holiday crowds at the mall or throw snowballs at cheeky village urchins or prep your house for New Year’s guests – who can marvel at the clear tipple you serve them New Year’s Eve and slurp down the cozy, creamy classic at brunch the next morning.
Allan is a Hyattsville, Maryland, writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.
Brennan’s Caribbean Milk PunchServing: 1
This indulgent and simple milk punch is of a style that dates to the early days of cocktailing; a version appears in Jerry Thomas’s 19th century book. Brennan’s, the luxurious restaurant in New Orleans, serves it as a brunch drink – a great idea when you don’t need to do much for the rest of the day. But it’s a nice option for after dinner as well – served in place of dessert.MAKE AHEAD: The vanilla simple syrup can be refrigerated for up to 3 weeks.
The vanilla simple syrup uses a scraped vanilla bean or vanilla bean paste. Many grocers carry whole vanilla beans, but spice stores may be a more reliable source for fresh whole beans (or vanilla bean paste).Ingredients:Ice1 ounce dark rum, such as Smith and Cross½ ounce bourbon1 ounce vanilla simple syrup (see NOTE)1 ounce heavy creamWhole nutmeg, for a grated garnishMethod:Chill a cocktail coupe. Fill a cocktail shaker with ice, then add the rum, bourbon, vanilla simple syrup and cream. Seal and shake vigorously for 10 seconds, then strain into the glass. Grate a little nutmeg over the top of the drink and serve.
NOTE: To make the vanilla syrup, combine 2 cups of sugar and 2 cups of water in a saucepan over low heat. Split one vanilla bean open with a knife, then use the knife to scrape the seeds directly into the pan (may substitute 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste; see headnote). Increase the heat to medium-high, stirring to make sure the sugar has dissolved and the vanilla bean is distributed. Once the mixture begins to boil, reduce the heat to low and cook for 2 minutes, then turn off the heat. Cool completely before using or storing (in an airtight container in the refrigerator, for up to 3 weeks). The yield is about 2½ cups.
Nutrition: Per serving: 270 calories, 0 g protein, 19 g carbohydrates, 11 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 40 mg cholesterol, 10 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 18 g sugar
Source: Adapted from a recipe at Brennan’s restaurant in New Orleans.
Golden Pineapple Spice PunchServings: 15 four-ounce servings
This clarified punch seems like a modern bartenders’ magic trick, but the technique it employs has been around for hundreds of years. It is not a difficult drink to make, but it does take time for the punch to rest and separate (it’s not something you can whip up in a few hours). Essentially, it uses the proteins of milk to “wash” the color and harsh edges of the liquid, leaving you with a delicate, silky punch that retains the softness of milk without its opacity.You will need several large bowls, a large pitcher, at least one fine-mesh strainer or a funnel and plenty of coffee filters (or a cheesecloth, nut-milk bag or other tightly woven material for straining the drink). The vanilla bean simple syrup is delicious, but in a pinch, you can use a scant ¼ cup plain simple syrup plus a teaspoon of vanilla extract.MAKE AHEAD: The punch should be refrigerated at least 1 day in advance, and preferably 2 or 3 days. If you’re serving it in a punch bowl, you’ll want to make a large block of ice the night before serving. The vanilla simple syrup can be refrigerated for up to 3 weeks.
The vanilla bean simple syrup uses a scraped vanilla bean or vanilla bean paste. Many grocers carry whole vanilla beans, but spice stores such as Bazaar Spices and Penzeys may be a more reliable source for the freshest whole beans (or vanilla bean paste).Ingredients:For the punch:2 cups brewed chai tea, such as Twinings brand2½ cups pineapple juice (preferably fresh; if using bottled, make sure it is unsweetened)½ cup fresh lime juice (from 3 or 4 fresh limes)½ cup allspice dram2½ cups rum blend (a mix of good-quality light and dark rums is nice; we used 1 cup Smith & Cross, 1 cup Banks 5 Island, and 1/2 cup Plantation Pineapple rum)½ cup green Chartreuse¼ cup vanilla simple syrup (see headnote and NOTE)1 teaspoon Angostura bitters2 cups whole milkIce (large cubes or block of punch ice; see headnote)For optional garnish:Thinly sliced citrus wheelsThinly sliced fresh ginger rootWhole star aniseFresh rosemaryMethod:
For the punch: Stir together the brewed chai tea, pineapple juice, lime juice, allspice dram, rum, Chartreuse, vanilla simple syrup and bitters in a large bowl.
Pour the milk into a large pitcher, then gradually pour the punch mixture into the pitcher. Stir gently; the milk will begin to curdle and separate. That’s okay. Transfer to the refrigerator to allow the curdling and separation to continue for at least 24 hours, and preferably 2 or 3 days. (If you’re in a rush, you can use more coffee filters and manually filter the milk-punch mixture, but the more time you allow, the less active work you’ll have to do.)
After 24 hours, you should see that the punch has separated significantly. There will likely be a layer of curds floating on top, but most of the milk solids should have settled at the bottom of the pitcher. Use a fine-mesh strainer to skim curds off the top (discard them), then gently pour the clarified “middle” of the punch into a large bowl. Try not to jiggle the bowl; doing so will disturb more of the milk solids and result in a less-clear punch.
At the bottom of the pitcher, you’ll likely have a mix of milk curds and clear punch. Place a fine-mesh strainer or funnel above the large bowl, and line the strainer or funnel with a coffee filter, then ladle the last of what’s in the pitcher into the strainer so the liquid drains into the bowl, capturing the solids in the coffee filter.
You will be left with a large bowl of punch (about 60 ounces). It will probably still be cloudy from the milk solids that haven’t been strained out yet. This liquid can now be strained through the same coffee filter process described in the previous step. You’ll likely use multiple coffee filters to finish it (as the solids collect in the filters, the filters become blocked - switch them out as needed until your punch is clear). Refrigerate the final clarified punch until you’re ready to serve it.
For the optional garnishes: When ready to serve, put your punch ice and any garnishes into the punch bowl. Pour the clarified punch gently over the ice. Ladle into clear punch cups or cocktail (martini) glasses.
NOTE: To make the vanilla syrup, combine 2 cups of sugar and 2 cups of water in a saucepan over low heat. Split one vanilla bean open with a knife, then use the knife to scrape the seeds directly into the pan (may substitute 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste; see headnote). Increase the heat to medium-high, stirring to make sure the sugar has dissolved and the vanilla bean is distributed. Once the mixture begins to boil, reduce the heat to low and cook for 2 minutes, then turn off the heat. Cool completely before using or storing (in an airtight container in the refrigerator, for up to 3 weeks). The yield is about 2 1/2 cups.
Nutrition: Ingredients are too variable for a meaningful analysis.
Source: From Spirits columnist M. Carrie Allan.