What Is Milk Punch And What Does It Taste Like?

How'd you like a nice milk punch? While that question probably won't be followed up with a fist to the face, like in the old Hawaiian Punch commercial (back in the days when commercials had a bit more attitude, kiddies), it does beg another question: What kind of milk punch are we talking about? You see, there are two kinds. One is the clarified variety that VinePair reported on bartenders being "obsessed with" back in 2018, which was a year when everyone was easily obsessed. This type of milk punch may remain trendy in certain circles, but we're bucking the trend and taking a closer look at the other milk punch, the New Orleans specialty that's made with unclarified milk but still has booze.

Milk punch may be well known on Bourbon Street, but this drink is often made with another "b" liquor, that being brandy. It's seen as a Mardi Gras thing and an excuse for day drinking, only without the vitamin C you'd get from other brunch drinks like the mimosa and bloody Mary. As for the flavor, well, it's very sweet, creamy, and fairly heavy and tastes of booze, sugar, and vanilla extract as well as any nutmeg or chocolate that may be used to garnish it.

What is the history of milk punch?

As the story goes, milk punch was birthed at the bar known as Brennan's. In fact, there are numerous recipes for Brennan's milk punch floating around on the internet –- can't you just see them clinging for dear life to cute little paper umbrellas? Interestingly enough, most of these recipes seem to feature brandy, but the restaurant itself has shared a recipe for a variant made with rum. Still, the idea of milk punch, no matter what type of spirit it contains, was around long before Brennan's was established in 1946.

In Ireland, a similar milk punch known as scáiltín is also made with sweetened milk, although whiskey (probably Irish) is the alcohol of choice. Scáiltín, which may date back to the Middle Ages, differs from milk punch in one significant way, though: It is typically served hot, whereas milk punch is cold. When you consider the rainy, mild climate of Dublin and compare it to the subtropical heat of New Orleans, though, this temperature difference checks out. Closer to home, and a few centuries closer in time, as well, we find a kind of milk punch being used as a celebrity cold remedy. Founding father Ben Franklin, after getting caught in a thunderstorm while flying a kite, liked to take the chill off with a mug of sweetened, spiced milk that he spiked with brandy, wine, or ale.

How do you make milk punch?

The classic milk punch recipe reputed to come from Brennan's is made as a single drink. It involves just three main ingredients, these being half-and-half (which is, after all, half milk), brandy, and simple sugar syrup flavored with a small amount of vanilla extract. These ingredients are shaken (not stirred), then strained, and typically sprinkled with nutmeg. If you want to uphold your foodie cred, of course, you need to grate it fresh, but if you're like most of us and wouldn't know a whole nutmeg if it conked you on the head, the powdered kind tastes close enough for government work.

Of course, other recipes do take a few liberties with Brennan's creation. One of these comes from Brennan's itself, as the restaurant makes what they call a Caribbean milk punch where the brandy is replaced by rum and bourbon. Plus, to make it extra-fancy, instead of vanilla extract, the simple syrup is infused with a vanilla bean. Other recipes lean into the whole "punch as party drink" idea and provide recipes that make up a whole bowlful. Lighter punches are made with just milk, while heavier ones may include whipping cream. Some milk punches eschew the brandy and replace it with whiskey or opt for a chocolate topping instead of nutmeg, while a few heretics even introduce flavorings like mint or raspberry or use buttermilk as the base.

When might you serve milk punch?

While milk punch may have originated as a brunch drink, it really seems more dessert-like with all that sugar, so it might be better suited to being a nightcap. In fact, in chilly weather, you could even nuke it in the microwave to make your own "medicinal" milk punch a la Ben Franklin. As warm milk is reputed to have a soporific effect (even if it may, in truth, be more of a placebo effect), this is another reason you might want to reclassify milk punch as a bedtime drink.

Milk punch might also be appropriate around the holiday season — and no, we're not talking about Mardi Gras, as this isn't much of a thing in many parts of the country (colder ones, usually). Instead, milk punch could be used to replace eggnog for your Yuletide festivities. The drinks are fairly similar except for the fact that the former contains no eggs, thus making milk punch a great holiday alternative for the salmonella-averse. If your celebration includes people who don't — or shouldn't — drink, you could also take a leaf out of the book of our 19th president, Rutherford B. Hayes. Because he wasn't a big boozer, Hayes had the White House chef make up a not-very-alcoholic punch flavored with rum extract instead of copious amounts of alcohol. While the doctored drink was a popular 19th-century libation called Roman punch, there's no reason this trick wouldn't work with milk punch, as well.

How is milk punch different from clarified milk punch?

The milk punch we've been discussing here is exactly the kind of thing you'd visualize upon hearing the words: sugared-up, alcohol-spiked milk. Clarified milk punch, on the other hand, doesn't look or taste like anything having to do with milk. So why the name? Because milk does play a role in the production of the drink, even if it's more of a behind-the-scenes one. This is one instance where rearranging a few words and adding a punctuation mark would really help clarify things, because the drink is actually a milk-clarified punch, meaning that milk is used to clarify it.

The main ingredients of clarified milk punch are tea, fruit juice (typically some type of citrus or other acidic fruit is involved), and pretty much any kind of alcohol you have on hand or care to use. These are all cooked up together, resulting in a curdled mess. Said mess is then strained, removing most of the milk and leaving a clear drink that tastes of tea, fruit, and booze. Clarified milk punch, like the non-clarified kind, also has a pretty long pedigree, although it may be a few centuries younger as one origin story involves it being created in the 17th century by multi-talented mixologist/poet/playwright Aphra Behn. One thing the two drinks have in common is that Ben Franklin was said to have been a fan of both, but Queen Victoria preferred the clarified kind.

Where can you find milk punch?

While milk punch may resemble eggnog, it has yet to catch on to such an extent or to be adopted by a holiday where the festivities last for two whole months. For that reason, it's not the kind of thing you can buy in a liquor store. There is such a thing as milk punch liqueur, but the one brand we were able to find, Rockey's by name, is flavored with fruits and tea and is obviously meant to mimic the clarified variety.

Milk punch, however, is something that you may be able to find in bars, particularly if they are located in or around New Orleans and the date is on or around Mardi Gras. While the drink isn't currently featured on Brennan's bar menu, at the time of writing, the holiday is a few months away. Still, as its Caribbean milk punch recipe is published online, it seems likely you could convince the bartenders to make you either a rum or brandy-based one at any time of year. Muriel's Jackson Square has been known to feature milk punch out of season, as well, and the Venture Kitchen in Hampton, Virginia lists it as a Sunday brunch staple. Your best (and cheapest) option, however, does not involve traveling any farther than your nearest supermarket and liquor store for the necessary ingredients to DIY this super-simple drink in your own kitchen.