Episode 076 - The Milk Punch Episode
What’s shakin, cocktail fans?
Welcome back to another episode of The Modern Bar Cart Podcast!
Thanks for joining us for another one of our DIY Bar Cart Foundations episodes, where we take a deep dive into the tools, techniques, and ingredients that make great drinks. This time around, we’re going to dive into a really fascinating little corner of the cocktail universe and investigate the many faces of milk punch, both historical and contemporary.
We’ll begin by looking at the origins of Milk Punch, then trace it through the centuries in both its clarified and unclarified forms. This investigation is going to involve batching, which is a topic that’s near and dear to my heart, as well as the chemistry behind clarification.
Scáiltín: Milk Punch’s Feisty Ancestor
Let’s start by jumping into our time machine and taking a trip back to medieval Ireland, where the story of Milk Punch begins.
Prior to the 9th century, Ireland was largely left alone in the early Medieval world. The Romans never got there, and with the exception of some attempted evangelization by the Catholic Church, the English, Welsh, and Scottish largely left the gaelic inhabitants of the Emerald Isle alone.
This changed when the Vikings showed up and caused trouble from around 800-1000 AD. And then the Normans showed up and did the same thing from around 1150-1350 AD. Remember the Normans were the folks who crossed the English channel and invaded England in 1066 at the battle of Hastings...William the Conqueror and all that jazz...depicted famously on the Bayeux Tapestry...well, about a century after they invaded England, they must have gotten bored again because they did the same thing to Ireland.
The only slight difference was that the Normans technically got “permission” to invade Ireland in the form of something called a “Papal Bull,” which is basically when the Pope gives a public statement endorsing some person, property, or action on behalf of the Catholic Church.
In 1155, Pope Adrian the IV, the only English Pope, issued a papal bull calling for the invasion of Ireland on the grounds that the Christian missionaries and monks already in place on the island might not have been doing such a great job. They might have been abusing their power a bit. And maybe this is because they were a bit too busy playing with the art and science of distillation, which had made its way to the Island from the Mediterranean around the year 1000.
Now, let’s pause and explain exactly why we’re giving you a lesson in early Irish history. The reason is because the first proto-milk punch is a gaelic beverage called scáiltín, and every blog and article on the internet is comfortable identifying this as the precursor to milk punch and then vaguely stating that it had been consumed since “the Medieval age.”
The ingredients of scáiltín usually include Irish whiskey, milk or cream, butter, and flavoring ingredients like herbs and spices. And almost always recommended that it be topped with grated nutmeg.
As we were looking at these recipes and all of the duplicate content copied/pasted from wikipedia, we realized something was off - or at least, something was being parrotted around that didn’t make sense. And that’s why we’re in our little time machine looking at the very earliest days of Irish distilling, which came to the island by way of christian missionaries, by way of the mediterranean, by way of the Arabs, who invented distillation as we now know it.
If scáiltín was truly the first type of milk punch, and if it was truly consumed during the middle ages, one distinction I’d like to make abundantly clear is that it probably was made using aqua vitae - which is a completely unaged distilled spirit that entered the written record for the first time in 1405 (but we can assume it was being consumed for quite some time before that).
A Point About Barrel Aging
The second point we’ll make about Irish Whiskey is that we generally expect such a spirit to be aged in charred oak barrels, which is a practice that didn’t take place in any controlled or widespread manner until well after the middle ages. We don’t know when, but many suspect that the French were the first to do it, which then likely spread to Scotland, and finally to Ireland and the United States.
So when you look at all these scáiltín recipes that claim “Irish Whiskey,” well, they may be more palatable than the original concoctions, but they’re definitely not authentic.
Nutmeg and the Plague
After we dove down that rabbit hole, we were also eager to dispatch with the nutmeg and take all those copy-and-paste cocktail bloggers down yet another peg. But what we found might surprise you.
It seemed like nutmeg was only commercially available in Europe once commercial trade routes to the spice islands in the Pacific became logistically viable during the age of discovery. But I was wrong. Nutmeg had been finding its way to Europe as early as Roman times, and it got a really nice nudge in popularity (and price) when it was purported to help ward off the plague.
So, on our quest to identify the most authentic version of scáiltín, nutmeg gets to stay, but because it was probably only available to the wealthy ruling elite in Ireland, let’s acknowledge that most people were probably drinking it sans nutmeg.
The Advent of Irish Moonshining
One other noteworthy phenomenon that occurred during the Norman invasion period in Ireland is that the Normans took control of cities and fertile farmland, pushing the gaelic natives into the country hinterlands, where they survived mostly as subsistence farmers. As a result, when the Bubonic Plague reached Ireland in 1348, the Normans suffered great losses in cities, where the population density was much higher, while the native Gaels had a bit more luck out in the countryside, where they were more isolated.
This isolation and distrust of foreign entities also sets up the origins of the Irish moonshining tradition, where small operators would run stills out in the rural parts of Ireland, skirting taxes imposed by outside Kings. What came out of these “little pots” eventually came to be known as poitin, which is the true, unaged precursor of today’s Irish whiskey.
A Modern Scáiltín Recipe
So if you were to ask us how to re-create an authentic and delicious scáiltín recipe today, here’s what I’d tell you to do:
In a saucepan on med-low heat, combine:
16 oz (or 2 cups) whole milk
2 tablespoons of honey
2 pats of Irish butter
1 or two cinnamon sticks
And any whole baking spices you may have around (one or two cloves, a couple allspice berries, etc.)
4 oz (or ½ cup) of Poitin, which isn’t super-easy to find in the U.S., but it’s around if you know where to look.
Keep in mind that you want to get all your non-alcoholic ingredients heated up to just barely simmering before you add the booze, and then cut the heat, discard the whole spices, stir in the poitin, and serve in mugs with grated nutmeg. If you add the liquor while the mixture is still on simmer, a decent amount of alcohol is going to boil off - and nobody wants that.
The Rise of Clarified Milk Punch
Now that we know where milk punch comes from - and what it was likely made from in its earliest form - let’s jump ahead to when it became one of the most popular beverages in England and beyond.
According to most popular sources, the first published recipe for clarified or “British” milk punch appeared in a 1711 cookbook by Mary Rockett, and the drink was largely popularized by English playwright Aphra Behn.
Two primary changes took place in the development of milk punch around this time. One is that citrus became a component - and if you’ve ever heard me talk about the importance of global trade routes for the development of beverages like punch, this is very much in the same conversation.
The second noteworthy change is the people started bottling milk punch in larger quantities to be stored in shelf-stable conditions - and this is largely due to the effect that the citrus has on milk.
The Science Behind Clarification
When you put an acid into milk, the pH of the overall solution is lowered, and the milk proteins begin to denature, or unwind. The particular protein in question here is one called “casein,” and when you start to see little chunks or “globs” in a curdled dairy substance, those are just groups of casein proteins binding to one another.
The cool thing about clarified milk punch is that it checks most (if not all) of the boxes required for something to be considered shelf-stable if stored in a sealed container. And remember, today we have higher sanitation standards than they did back in the 1700s, but I’d still say that English Milk Punch holds its own pretty well.
First, we’ve got the presence of citric acid (in the form of lemon or lime juice), which is used as a food and drink stabilizer to this day. So acidification, check.
Then we’ve got a substantial amount of alcohol, which inhibits the growth of bacteria and mold. Check.
Then we’ve got the elimination of solids, to which contaminants like mold or bacteria can bind and flourish. And what I mean by this is that the curds described a moment ago get strained out of the solution. Check.
And finally, we’ve got the fact that these ingredients are combined when they’re hot. Now, milk punch doesn’t technically fit the bill for pasteurization based on the methods described in these recipes, so it doesn’t get a full check here, but we’ll give it a partial one - A for effort, if not for results.
Resurrecting Ben Franklin’s Milk Punch
Now that we understand the broad strokes of what it takes to make a clarified milk punch, let’s get into the actual ingredients and break down the process step-by-step.
And for this, we’ll use a recipe popularized by our very own Benjamin Franklin, found in a letter he once wrote to the Governor of Massachusetts.
Franklin writes, (quote):
Take 6 quarts of Brandy, and the Rinds of 44 Lemons pared very thin; Steep the Rinds in the Brandy 24 hours; then strain it off. Put to it 4 Quarts of Water, 4 large Nutmegs grated, 2 quarts of Lemon Juice, 2 pound of double refined Sugar. When the Sugar is dissolv’d, boil 3 Quarts of Milk and put to the rest hot as you take it off the Fire, and stir it about. Let it stand two Hours; then run it thro’ a Jelly-bag till it is clear; then bottle it off.
Now, that’s a very dense, but also very precise recipe described in Franklin’s letter. But I’ll do you the favor of converting it to measurements that are a bit easier to follow in today’s world.
One 25 oz bottle of Cognac
½ whole nutmeg (grated) * or ½ tsp
The peels of 8 lemons
16 oz water
8 oz lemon juice
12 oz whole milk
¾ cup of sugar (feel free to weigh yours out to .333 lbs for accuracy)
The sugar is probably the hardest unit to convert here because the type of sugar being used back in Ben Franklin’s time was a lot different than the granulated Domino’s sugar that we use today, but if you match a little less than a cup of sugar to every bottle of spirits you use in this scalable recipe, that should put you in pretty good shape. Another way to think about this would be to make sure that you’re essentially adding quantities of water and sugar that would amount to something in the ballpark of a simple syrup.
First, peel 8 lemons and let them steep in the half bottle of brandy overnight. Then I strained those out and tossed em.
Next, get out two saucepans. In the small one, place 12 oz of whole milk on medium heat. In the other, larger one, combine sugar, water, brandy, and lemon juice, stirring with a whisk until the sugar is dissolved.
When the milk gets up to a boil, you pour that into the larger saucepan, give it a gentle stir, and then let it sit for an hour or two so that the curds can form.
Straining Your Milk Punch
When you return to your milk punch, it’s time to strain. And whenever I’m trying to filter solids out of a solution, I like to start big - just using a kitchen strainer, and then I work my way down to finer and finer meshes. Usually next I used some cheese cloth, and then maybe a nut milk bag - similar to the “jelly bag” Franklin calls for in his recipe.
Once you’ve filtered out the large curds, you can put the solution into a pitcher and let it sit in the fridge overnight. This is when more solids will settle to the bottom of the container, and the best move here is to pour the clear solution off the top into your final bottle. Feel free to put it through a really fine mesh filter at this point if you have one.
If all has gone well, you should have a product that is mostly clear and lacking some of its original color, but that still tastes smooth, full-bodied, and well balanced.
This is the allure of clarified milk punch: the creamy texture of dairy with the uncanny and aesthetically pleasing condition of being perfectly clear in the glass, which opens up a whole array of possibilities when it comes to presentation and service.
Add to this the fact that milk punch is fairly crushable, and you’ve got a large format cocktail for the holidays that should help to smooth over some of those awkward or less fun family interactions we sometimes dread.
New Orleans Milk Punch
One last take on milk punch I’d like to cover before we wrap up this episode is the New Orleans style, which is also a staple around the holidays, but which doesn’t take on the added work of clarification.
A couple things to note here.
New Orleans is a warm-weather city, so unlike scáiltín, New Orleans-style milk punch is served cold.
Zooming way out, brandy is a traditional staple in New Orleans due to its substantial French influence. So if you’re looking at a New Orleans cocktail recipe from the 19th century, and you’re wondering about what the original base spirit was...chances are it was brandy. When this ingredient became scarce during the phylloxera blight in the early 1860s, American whiskey either came in to augment the brandy, or replaced it outright. An example of a New Orleans cocktail that was originally brandy-based is the Sazerac, which now calls exclusively for rye whiskey. An example of a cocktail that celebrates more of a fusion of the two (along with other international influences) is the Vieux Carre.
The New Orleans-style milk punch is definitely more of a cocktail than a punch, in that it calls for individual servings. BUT - it does contain all the wonderful aspects of milk punch: the creaminess, the sweetness, and the dark spice notes.
According to Imbibe.com, to make it, you’ll need:
2 oz. whole milk
2 oz. cream
1 ½ oz. brandy
1 oz. simple syrup
Shake this in a cocktail shaker with ice. Strain into a coupe glass, or enjoy on the rocks - totally up to your glassware preferences. And maybe think about adding a few dashes of Embitterment Chocolate bitters in there just to really pull out the richness of the brandy.