Bourbon: we’re milking it

Bourbon, lemons, honey and half-and-half are the makings of a great American drink./AFR photo by Michele Kayal 

When the craft-cocktail movement started to gain momentum, bartenders seemed intent on pushing the envelope with elaborate and creative concoctions. But as the neo-speakeasy era has settled in and begun to mature, “mixologists” are finding inspiration in the history books.

One drink that is making a comeback is milk punch, a tipple that is said to have been used as a hangover cure since our country’s earliest days. “They drank it in colonial times, they drank it in Boston, they drank it on the Mississippi riverboats, they drank it just about everywhere, right on through the Second World War,” David Wondrich wrote in Esquire. “After that, America seems to have lost the taste.”

Benjamin Franklin famously had his own recipe, but milk punch did eventually fall out of fashion in most parts of the country, with the notable exception of the South – and New Orleans, in particular.

“It is something that is quintessentially New Orleans and really fun to take a spin on,” says mixologist Christine Jeanine Nielsen of the Windsor Court Cocktail Bar in New Orleans. She makes a knock-out sweet potato milk punch, and worked horchata (a Mexican rice drink) into the mix last spring.

Benjamin Franklin

Milk punch made an appearance at chef José Andrés’ America Eats Tavern in Washington, D.C., a yearlong pop-up restaurant that offered a “new take on American classics, celebrated native ingredients and some long-forgotten dishes, from burgoo to oysters Rockefeller,” according to its website.

Also in Washington, a seasonal bourbon milk punch is a recurring component on chief mixologist Rob Yealu’s beverage menu at The Federalist. But he admits to straying from Franklin’s instructions.

“His milk punch recipe was a bit aggressive for the modern palate,” Yealu says. “There was talk of curdling milk with lemon juice, heat and brandy, and that wasn’t going to work for me.”

So he borrowed a few of Franklin’s basic elements and replaced brandy with bourbon. Like Nielsen, he also adds whimsical and seasonal touches such as infusing the bourbon with roasted hazelnuts and using a fig-infused honey syrup for fall. In summer, he has added mixed berries and honey-maple syrup. “In the winter, when we can’t get any fruit, we use a masala chai with a honey marmalade,” he says. “Every season we stay true to form and garnish with a little grated nutmeg right on top.”

In the role of eggnog’s wallflower cousin, milk punch is a less well-known holiday drink in some parts of the country – both during a night of merriment and the morning after. “It’s one of those hangover cures,” Yealu says of its history. “A lot of cocktails were as much medicinal as they were about making yourself drunk.”

Whether you’re planning on getting “pidgeon ey’d” (one of Franklin’s 228 published euphemisms for drunkenness) or looking for its cure, milk punch is a recipe that we’re happy to welcome home.

Makes 1 cocktail

The Federalist’s Bourbon Milk Punch

Benjamin Franklin had his own recipe for milk punch. Rob Yealu, the mixologist at The Federalist in Washington, D.C., has borrowed Franklin's basic elements and replaced brandy with bourbon. Yealu says Franklin's punch recipe "was a bit aggressive for the modern palate.”

Ingredients

  • 1 ½ ounces bourbon
  • ½ ounce honey-lemon syrup
  • 2 ounces apple cider
  • 3 ounces half and half
  • Fresh grated nutmeg

  • Honey-Lemon Syrup

  • 2 cups water
  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • ½ cup honey
  • 1/4-½ cup sugar, to taste

Instructions

To make honey-lemon syrup: In a saucepan, bring water and zest to a rolling boil. Lower heat to medium and add honey and sugar. Simmer 5-10 minutes, until reduced by about half. Set aside to cool.

Shake all ingredients with ice in a cocktail shaker. Pour into a tulip or punch glass (a large wine glass also will work). Sprinkle top with grated nutmeg.

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3 Responses to Bourbon: we’re milking it

  1. Avatar of Adri Barr Crocetti
    Adri Barr Crocetti December 17, 2012 at 9:09 pm #

    And they drank it in the White House. Two recipes appear in 1900 edition of “The White House Cookbook” by Hugo Ziemann, Steward of The White House, and Mrs. F.L. Gillette (first published in 1887.) With pleasure I share this bit of American Drink Roots with you and your readers.

    Milk Punch:

    One pint of milk made very sweet; a wine-glassful brandy or rum well stirred together: grate a little nutmeg over the top of the glasses. Serve with a straw in each glass.

    Fine Milk Punch:

    Pare off the yellow rind of four large lemons and steep it for twenty-four hours in a quart of brandy or rum. Then mix it with the juice of the lemons, a pound and a half of loaf sugar, two grated nutmegs, and a quart of water. Add a quart of rich unskimmed milk, made boiling hot, and strain the whole through a jelly bag. You may either use it as soon as it is cold, or make a larger quantity (in the above proportions and bottle it. It will keep several months.

    Certainly the second recipe is very much like Ben Franklin’s original, although there is no direct mention in the recipe of curdling the milk. With no small degree of amusement I note “two grated nutmegs” would surely make for a very heavily spiced libation.

    I certainly am enjoying the innovations and revivals of today’s hep bartenders. And thank you for a most interesting look back at Milk Punch.

    • Avatar of Domenica Marchetti
      Domenica Marchetti December 18, 2012 at 8:02 am #

      Adri, thank you for this thoughtful and informative comment. I agree ~ two nutmegs sounds downright unappetizing, and this comes from a nutmeg lover. Cheers, D

  2. Avatar of Michele Kayal
    Michele Kayal December 18, 2012 at 11:11 am #

    Adri, this is fascinating. I’ve also read that BF’s milk punch was curdled, and I wonder how that would taste. Would it retain the lemon flavor from the juice, or would that be removed with the water after the curdle. Either way — two nutmegs aside — it doesn’t sound very appealing.

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