“Milk punches can be a culinary obstacle for most, but it’s actually not that difficult when you have the right equipment and a good formula,” says bartender Diego Peña of the cocktail that is typically a time-consuming undertaking. In other words, if you have a cheesecloth, you can clarify your milk punch.
In the last decade, centrifuges may have simplified the task, but separating milk solids from the liquid is no modern-day invention—it dates back to the 1700s. “The process of clarifying removes color as well as tannins, leading to a rounded and rich drink without the heaviness of dairy,” explains Ryan Chetiyawardana, of the boundary-pushing Lyan bars in London. The versatile technique can be used in everything from a classic brandy milk punch to a winterized take on the Piña Colada. Practically any cocktail can go clear—nonalcoholic drinks included.
For most bartenders, the preferred at-home technique calls for gently heating milk over the stove before straining out the solids that form as the water content evaporates. Alex Anderson, of Cure in New Orleans, uses this technique, drawing upon Scandinavian flavors in her Nordic Honey Punch, which incorporates herbal-inflected aquavit and an aromatic garnish of dill. At Boston’s Eastern Standard, meanwhile, bar manager Peña takes inspiration from a London Fog (essentially an Earl Grey tea latte) with his Fog Lights Milk Punch, which calls for a warming blend of bourbon, brandy and rum alongside Earl Grey syrup.
“I find that most milk punches are on the wintry end of the spectrum—lots of rum, brandy and whiskey, with cloves and nutmeg,” says Matt Piacentini of The Up & Up in Manhattan, noting that those flavors typically work in tandem with the heavy, smooth textures that the milk punch application contributes to drinks. But veering away from the familiar, Piacentini’s Disco Volante is built on a foundation of Aperol and gin, reading more like a bracing, herbal aperitif with the added roundness of a milk punch.
At Mister Paradise in New York’s East Village, bartender Will Wyatt opts for a heatless technique akin to the first milk punches of the 18th century: He allows milk and lime juice to mingle until the mixture curdles on its own, then strains out the curds. He adds this to a reduced Coca-Cola syrup and Ceylon tea in the rum-based Sex Panther, a complex twist on the Cuba Libre that Wyatt describes as possessing “the same heart and soul” as the original. Chicago bartender Eric Simmons, of Maple & Ash, takes a similar approach in his play on the New York Sour, the Diamond Noir, where the entire drink is filtered through heavy cream.
Also forgoing the stovetop method, Chetiyawardana opts for yogurt whey (the watery result of straining full-fat yogurt for half an hour) to add richness in his wintry Whey Punch. Mixed with Scotch, maple syrup and rooibos tea, Chetiyawardana says that it maintains the spirit of a clarified milk punch despite the fast-tracked method, noting: “It still manages to get the silkiness you want to drink.”
A final technique takes the milk punch approach and applies it only to a particular spirit, rather than an entire cocktail. Where clarifying a drink as a whole can soften the acidity of fresh citrus and tropical juices, using a milk-washed spirit instead imparts richness, without stripping away that bright flavor. This step, writes Punch contributor and drinks expert Jack Schramm, “can take just about any shaken drink to the next level.”