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Cocktails

Milk Punch Has Lost Its Mind

October 14, 2021

Story: Kara Newman

photo: Lizzie Munro

Cocktails

Milk Punch Has Lost Its Mind

October 14, 2021

Story: Kara Newman

photo: Lizzie Munro

In an age where even the Miami Vice and White Russian have gone clear, shock value has become a requisite part of milk punch’s appeal.

The ingredient list for the Budgy Smuggler cocktail at Lazy Tiger in St. Louis suggests a bright orange glassful: carrots, blood orange vermouth, passion fruit, plus gin, génépy and lime. Instead, the drink arrives clear as water. 

“It’s a mindfuck, for lack of a better word,” says co-owner Tim Wiggins. “How did this clear drink get all this flavor packed in, all that sweet and sour?”

This shock value is a big part of the current appeal of milk punch, a historic clarified cocktail. From a crystal-clear Miami Vice Milk Punch at Los Angeles’ Fellow, to a tom yum soup–inspired drink filtered through curdled coconut milk at Blyth & Burrows in Portland, Maine, bartenders are throwing everything but the proverbial kitchen sink into milk punches, then clarifying them into unrecognizable, transparent oblivion. 

Clarified milk punch (also called English milk punch) has roots dating back to at least the 1600s, gaining popularity in the 1700s. In the era before refrigeration, stability was a big part of the draw; once clarified (i.e., once the cloudy solids were removed) the drink could be stored for long periods. In his book Punch, historian David Wondrich suggests that the first written milk punch recipe, in which housewife Mary Rockett strained hot milk, brandy, lemon and spices through a flannel bag, dates to 1711. 

So how did a staid holdover from the past become a vehicle for kitschy experimentation?

The format was repopularized in New York once bartender Eamon Rockey became an evangelist for the drink after encountering it around 2008 at Bar Pleiades. He would go on to make the drink at Eleven Madison Park, then Betony from 2013 to 2016, before launching an eponymous bottled version in 2018.

The 2014 publication of Dave Arnold’s Liquid Intelligence, meanwhile, provided a bible for milk punch–curious bartenders, with detailed instructions on the technique and the “awesome texture” it could provide, as well as the magic of milk-washed spirits.

According to bartender LyAnna Sanabria, today, milk punch is being embraced as a surprisingly versatile canvas for even the most out-there flavor combinations, including her own Caprese Milk Punch (gin, tomato water, basil syrup and white balsamic vinegar) served at Portland’s Via Vecchia (the sister restaurant to Blyth & Burrows). For nearby Round Turn Distilling, she’s also created a gin-and-applejack drink that she clarifies using Apple Jacks cereal milk. “It’s a way to create a wild, fun recipe, but end up with an approachable product,” she explains. “Milk softens the flavors and makes it cohesive.” 

While menu descriptions may raise eyebrows, the final drink is palatable to a mainstream audience, she adds. “At the end of the day, we all want to be creative and really get into it; we want to be wild and weird, but we want the person on the other side of the bar to be able to enjoy the drink on a general level.”

As Deke Dunne, bar director at Allegory in Washington, D.C., notes, the drink has crossed over from novelty to menu mainstay. “It’s part of the cocktail bar zeitgeist now,” he says. His They Can’t Kill Us All is a purple-hued milk punch made with a base of rum and smaller measures of bourbon, amontillado sherry and banana liqueur. The drink is clarified using yuzu and kefir, with an ube simple syrup added after clarification for color and sweetness. The finished drink is served on an illuminated coaster, the better to show off its transparent glow. “It elicits a lot of oohs and aahs,” says Dunne. “It’s the ‘sizzling fajita’ effect: Everyone turns their head and three or four more orders come in the next few minutes.”

Although the preparation of clarified milk punch is labor-intensive, requiring hours or even days to strain, all the work can be done before the bar opens its doors for the night. Come service time, it’s a one-bottle pickup that bartenders can grab and pour over ice, making it a strategic menu item, especially for high-volume bars.

That’s a key reason why Lazy Tiger has featured a milk punch on the menu since opening in September 2020, starting with a “Milkshake Old Fashioned” (a clarified Old-Fashioned punched up with orange liqueur and brandy) followed by a clarified strawberry Margarita variation, and now the aforementioned Budgy Smuggler (the name, Aussie slang for a too-snug Speedo, is a reference to the Australian gin used in the drink).

It’s also proven to be a crowd-pleaser—so much so, that some guests have started to make their own clarified cocktails at home and bring them to Lazy Tiger for the bartenders to try. “It’s all you could ever want, that they’re so excited they want to show us what they’ve done,” says Wiggins, who hopes the madcap milk punch is here to stay. “If people are wilding out with clarified milk punch,” he says, “I’d rather see that than the same plug-and-play cocktails we’ve seen for 15 years.” 

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