Leaving the misnomer beside, this drink has a long history. It even appears in Jerry Thomas’ 1862 Bar-Tender’s Guide. Here is what New Orleanian Ned Hémard discovered about its origins.
“Is milk punch truly a New Orleans invention? Further investigation proves that it was not born in New Orleans, but like so many things in the Crescent City, it was there that milk punch had its “rebirth”.
Milk punch may have had its origins in medieval Ireland. One Irish medieval punch, known as scáiltín , contained whiskey, hot milk, melted butter, sugar, honey, cinnamon nutmeg or cloves (the original milk punch). Curiously, one of the more interesting contenders for the inventor of milk punch is the ever-intriguing Aphra Behn (1640–1689), spy, bon vivant and prolific author and dramatist of the Restoration. Working as a spy for Charles II, Behn became the lover to a prominent and powerful royal, and from him she obtained political secrets to be used to the English advantage. George Woodcock wrote: “Her talent for companionship evidently extended beyond conversation and music, for she is credited with having introduced into England that liquor favoured of eighteenth-century topers, milk punch.” It seems that English antiquary William Oldys, a specialist in the history of the stage, heard an old actor state that “the first person he ever knew or heard of, who made the liquor called Milk Punch” was none other than Aphra Behn. This particular thespian, John Bowman, should have known, having appeared in at least three of Behn’s plays (including the bawdy, punch-sodden The Widow Ranter). Bowman’s character utters these words, “Punch! ‘Tis my Morning’s Draught, my Table-drink, my Treat, my Regalio, my everything.” But Aphra Behn may have just promoted the drink, for milk punch’s first mention was in English statesman William Sacheverell’s account of his visit to the Scottish island of Iona in 1688 (during her lifetime). Milk Punch then went into hiding until the middle of the eighteenth century, when it once again became all the rage, remaining so for almost a hundred years, particularly in its bottled form.
Mr. Pickwick was thrilled to take “a most energetic pull” on a bottle of it, and a young Queen Victoria so enjoyed the version Nathaniel Whisson & Co. bottled that in 1838 she had them named “Purveyors of Milk Punch to Her Majesty”. Benjamin Franklin had his own recipe. Preparing to depart Boston for Philadelphia on October 11, 1763, Benjamin Franklin wrote to James Bowdoin, taking his leave and enclosing a recipe for “Milk Punch”. Franklin’s recipe shares characteristics of two types of beverages—possets and syllabubs. Possets combine hot milk with ale, wine, or brandy, sugar, and spices. Heat and alcohol curdle the milk. Possets were used as remedies for colds. Syllabubs combine milk with wine and lemon juice (or other acids); the acid from the wine and juice curdle the milk. Ben’s recipe exists today in his own hand, but the oldest extant recipe for milk punch (also with lemon juice) is over fifty years older. According to Montague Summers, who unearthed this recipe in 1914, it hails from “a tattered manuscript recipe book, the compilation of a good housewife named Mary Rockett, and dated 1711.”
Lin Turner, expert on numerous culinary subjects, reflects on the English origins of milk punch: “English Milk Punch, pretty well says all there is to be said about the origins of this festive beverage, but doesn’t beg the deeper question of ‘Why?’ As a strengthener for those made invalid by illness, milk was the beverage of choice back in the days of yore. A dollop of honey, a tot of whiskey and Aunt Gertie perks up. The alcohol was added to sterilize the unpasteurized milk of the day. There’s not much worse than the side effects of medicine, and I for one will demand whiskey in my medicinally ordered, Milk Punch!” In Early American Beverages there is an 1860 recipe for a brandy or rum milk punch in which the spirits are steeped in oranges and lemons; and an 1884 recipe that is sherry-based and calls for milk “warm from the cow”. And like so many milk punch recipes dating all the way back to medieval Ireland, the latter recipe calls for grated nutmeg to taste.”
There you have it. This is one tasty drink, and it works as well chilled as it does warmed. Perfect for those cold winter days ahead of us.
1oz light rum
0.25oz simple syrup
Garnish: freshly grated nutmeg, ground cinnamon
Shake with ice and strain into chilled Collins glass. Top with nutmeg and cinnamon.