Got milk? Why Milk Punch is one of 2020’s most coveted cocktails

Millie Milliken

Millie Milliken

29 January 2020

Pre-batchable, aesthetically minimalist and endlessly adaptable, the centuries-old Milk Punch is as relevant as ever. Imbibe caught up with the London bartenders who are embracing the clear (and not so clear) stuff on their 2020 menus

Recipe number 24 in Jerry Thomas’ Bartenders Guide: How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon Vivant's Companion, first published in 1862, is that of an English Milk Punch. Combining lemon rind, sugar, pineapple, cloves, coriander, cinnamon, brandy, rum arrack, green tea and boiling water, the method calls for all of the ingredients to be steeped for six hours, before adding hot milk and lemon juice and filter through a jelly bag until ‘the punch has passed bright’. The result? A clear liquid bearing no visual resemblance to milk, but with that unmistakable taste and texture.

Other styles of milk punches (as explained by Jared and Anastatia Brown in this 2017 In the Shaker feature) had proceeded that of Thomas et al’s iterations, but it was  – no doubt  – the sorcerous ingenuity of using acid to clarify protein that made the English Milk Punch such a hit among bartenders. 

Clear Conscience, Sibin at Great Scotland Yard Hotel
Clear Conscience, Sibin at Great Scotland Yard Hotel

As we enter the second decade of a brand new century, bartenders’ obsession with this classic cocktail has far from curtailed with the likes of Kwānt, Scarfes Bar, Lyaness and Davies & Brook featuring them on their menus. And new flavours, exciting ingredient and alternative methods of clarifying are keeping them busy behind the bar.

Who, what and how?

Pietro Collina, bar director at the recently opened Davies & Brook at Claridge’s, has introduced the Nori Milk Punch to the bar’s first menu. The team start by roasting nori sheets in Dolin blanc vermouth, then combining it with a housemade concentrated Genmaicha tea syrup and Plymouth Gin. The milk is then heated up very slowly (making sure not to boil it) before adding green apple juice. 

‘Besides the nori, what makes our milk punch different from most is that we don’t use any citrus or pineapple to break the milk,’ explains Collina. ‘You can actually make a Milk Punch that is softer and more delicate, and you also don’t need to use as much sugar to balance the drink.’ Once the milk is curdled, the ingredients are mixed together and poured through a superbag until completely clarified, before finally adding filtered water and saline solution. The finished drink is seriously smooth, with the nori shining through and slight tannin from the Japanese tea.

Besides the nori, what makes our milk punch different from most is that we don’t use any citrus or pineapple to break the milk

Pietro Collina

Alex Williams, head bartender at the new Great Scotland Yard Hotel, explained to me on a recent visit why he wanted to put a Milk Punch on the menu. ‘The Grasshopper is an under-appreciated “disco drink” that has long been a guilty pleasure of mine. When I started [here] and was asked by Michal Maziarz, the bars manager, to contribute a clarified drink for the Antagonist cocktail list in Sibin, it seemed [like] a perfect opportunity to get creative and turn my guilty pleasure into an inventive Milk Punch.’

Williams’ Clear Conscience combines toasted cacao Ban Poitin (the pointin is infused in a sous vide with toasted cacao nibs), chocolate milk-washed booze (cacao Ban Poitin is mixed with Branca Menta and lactic acid then poured into Cocio Dark Chocolate Milk, left to coagulate and strained), egg white-clarified Mugi Miso syrup and filtered water. ‘Using chocolate milk as the clarifying agent proved challenging,’ Williams admitted, but the result is worth his efforts. It reminds me of chocolate cereal milk with a welcome savouriness from the miso which is strong on the nose – the cool mint Matchmakers garnish is kitsch and cleansing. 

Down the road at Lyaness, the team are playing with a non-dairy ingredient in their Tattie Milk Punch by using – you guessed it – potatoes. We wanted to explore alternative ways to keep that rich mouthfeel and texture of creamy drinks… [using] something immensely starchy and rich that would be just as effective as using cream, if not more,’ says Will Meredith, the head bartender at Ryan Chetiyawardana’s South Bank bar. The vegetable alternative is good news for guests avoiding dairy – and it’s just as effective. 

Tattie Milk Punch, Lyaness
Tattie Milk Punch, Lyaness

Another point of difference with this serve is that it isn’t clarified. A conscious decision, I ask? Yes, ‘firstly, to keep the texture rich and intact and secondly, to cast an eye to traditional variants of the milk punch that did/ do not use clarification, such as the Brandy Milk Punch and eggnog-style cocktails.’ The team boil Maris Piper potatoes and blend with oat milk, water, sugar and nutmeg. The liquid is then strained through a chinois strainer and bottled. ‘If we are keeping it for a while, we will fortify the potato cream with whisky in order to preserve it’ Meredith adds.

Milking it

So, why the hype? Service, prep and presentation are high on the reasons for the drinks’ popularity with bartenders. ‘They’re not only a crowd-pleaser drink because of the nostalgic taste,’ explains DrinkUp.London’s Hannah Sharman-Cox. ‘They are also easy to pre-batch and make at scale. The overwhelming trend for drinks to be unfussy, ungarnished and in minimalistic glassware suits this style of drink too.’

The big success of this drink is the chance to serve it in a really quick way, despite the fact that the preparation is very long and tricky

Giacomo Ellena

Collina agrees: ‘It is a drink that you can prep before service, place in the fridge, and just pour out of a bottle to serve guests, focusing on hospitality. The minimalist movement in cocktails is making everyone want to present a drink that looks simple but actually tastes very complex. For all the bars that don’t have a centrifuge or rotovap it’s an easy way to make that style of drink.’ 

‘The big success of this drink is the chance to serve it in a really quick way, despite the fact that the preparation is very long and tricky,’ Giacomo Ellena, head bartender at Notila Social adds. ‘When your milk punch is bottled, then you only have to pour it in a glass and garnish the drink before serving it.’

It’s propensity to support a multitude of flavourings is also something bartenders are getting increasingly excited about. David Segat, director of bars at the London Edition hotel (which includes the Punch Room, whose Milk Punch is pictured above) also cites flavour experiment as a factor: ‘Nowadays we have the ability to play around with the different spirits, spices, teas and sugars – whilst still respecting the original recipe.’ 

There are so many great parts to milk such as lactose and protein that are great adaptors to flavour

William Meredith

‘I think the resurgence has been down to bartenders finding new ways to incorporate and extract flavour as a result of this method,’ Meredith reasons. ‘There are so many great parts to milk such as lactose and protein that are great adaptors to flavour.’

Ellena takes it a step further: ‘Milk punch is so interesting because it presents so many layers of flavour at the same time, combining fruity, tart, bitter, and floral notes in the right proportions to result balanced and lovely. The complexity that a milk punch can reach is far beyond the one of any other drink.’

Drinkers’ choice?

While bartenders are enchanted by Milk Punch, there are still factors to consider when it comes to presenting the drink to guests. ‘Milk punch is difficult to explain to a guest who is unfamiliar,’ admits Collina. His advice its to ‘just talk about the flavours and mouth feel – leave the science to someone who wants to know more. The best thing to do is give them a little taste and move on from there.’

The move towards consumers drinking less dairy milk can also be something to bear in mind when approaching the Milk Punch. ‘Because of the transparency of the liquid, I think most people wouldn’t realise there is any milk within the recipe, so I do feel that bars need to be very mindful as to how they are presented on menus,’ warns Sharman-Cox.

Nolita Social’s Ellena agrees that being clear about the ingredients in the drink is important when presenting guests with a drink they might expect to be white or creamy in appearance. 

For Meredith though, it’s the guests’ curiosity that draws them to the drink on Lyaness’ menu in the first place.I think the advantage of using potatoes is that they’re an ingredient that everyone can relate to... it shows that you can twist some of the true classics in a fun way and still create something that touches on all the key elements that made the original drink what it was in the first place.’

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