"Sometimes I think I'm in over my head," half-jokes Michael Lay, head bartender at Faith & Flower downtown, in the middle of peeling 36 lemons for six batches of English milk punch, gallons of which customers have been drinking every week -- about a gallon a night on weekdays and two gallons a night on the weekends.
Milk punch might not sound like the cocktail of the summer. But this isn't the creamy milk punch that's made with milk and/or cream mixed with bourbon or brandy and is traditionally the stuff of holidays in the South. It's clear milk punch, a British drink that dates to the mid-18th century. And it's delicious.
It tastes of the tropics, because it's made with rum and citrus juices. To that is added boiled milk. The punch base acidifies the milk, and the resulting curdled milk turns the liquid into a clear, pale golden, rich cocktail. (The curds are strained.) It's the consomme of cocktails, but leaves behind a creamy mouthfeel.
And it isn't just Faith & Flower's milk punch that has captivated cocktailers. It has appeared in several variations at bars across the country. And it has periodically been all the rage throughout the centuries.
The secondary effect of the trend (combined with the reverberations of the fat wash trend) is now the "milk wash." The Rootbeer Float at Honeycut downtown, for example: heavy cream fat-washed Plantation 3 Star rum, Giffard Vanille de Madagascar and root beer extract. Look for more filtered curdled milk cocktails.
"I thought that it would just be a limited thing," Lay says of his milk punch. "We'd have it on the menu and when we're out, we're out. But people get really upset."
It's not exactly easy to make; it takes three days. Lay's recipe for English milk punch is based on one attributed to 19th century American bartender Jerry Thomas, but Lay tinkered with it for several years to get it just right. He uses three kinds of rum (Smith & Cross Jamaican rum for its banana notes; Appleton Estate 12-year, aged in oak; and Cuban rum Bacardi 8-year), plus bourbon, Cognac, Batavia arrack and absinthe.
On the first day he makes the base for the punch, including oleo saccharum (sugar oil), a mixture of sugar, lemon peels, lemon juice, pineapple and spices. To this he adds the booze, as well as brewed green tea, and finally, boiling water. This is allowed to sit overnight, then strained.
Day two: Boil milk and add the infused rum mixture and lemon juice to the milk so that it coagulates, then strain with a cheese-cloth-lined chinois and set aside overnight.
The next day any remaining milk solids will have settled to the bottom and at the top of the container is clear milk punch, which can be ladled or carefully poured from the container. Lay prefers to use a siphon.
See the photo gallery here for the step-by-step process. See below for Lay's recipe.
English milk punch
From Michael Lay of Faith & Flower. Lay uses these specific spirit brands, but you can experiment with others. Serves 10 to 12. (Note: This recipe has not been tested by the Times Test Kitchen.)
Peel of 4 lemons
20 coriander seeds
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 star anise pod
1 pound sugar
Juice of 6 lemons
8 ounces Appleton Estate 12 Year rum
8 ounces Smith & Cross Jamaican rum
8 ounces Bacardi 8 Year rum
6 ounces Bulleit bourbon
8 ounces Pierre Ferrand 1840
6 ounces Battavia Arrack van Oosten
4 ounces Absinthe Mata Hari
1 ounce of Peychauds bitters (or Angostura)
8 ounces of brewed sencha green tea
14 ounces boiling water
40 ounces milk
Juice of 2 lemons
1. Add the lemon peels to a large airtight container.
2. Peel and cut the pineapple into large chunks and add them to the lemon peels in the container.
3. Coarsely grind the spices with a mortar and pestle. Add the spices to the container, along with the sugar and the juice of 6 lemons. Muddle the mixture.
4. Pour in the brewed green tea and stir to mix. Pour in 1 cup boiling water and immediately cover so that the liquid doesn't evaporate. Let sit overnight. Then strain the mixture and reserve the liquid.
5. Bring the milk to a boil. Add the boiling milk and the juice of 2 lemons to the strained rum mixture. The milk will coagulate.
6. Using a fine chinois lined with cheese cloth strain the liquid a little at a time. You may have to stop and replace the cheese cloth when it has too much milk buildup. Pour the liquid into a container, cover, place in the refrigerator and leave it overnight so that the remaining milk solids settle.
7. Ladle the clarified punch from the top of the container, being careful not to disturb the solids at the bottom. Strain the punch again if desired. Serve over ice.