Milk Punch: A Drink that Keeps ‘Years by Sea or Land’

Milk Punch. Image courtesy of the authors.

Milk punch is further clarified when it is run through a fine-weave cloth.

We used a flour sack dish towel here, but several layers of cheesecloth would also be fine. 

By Emily Beck and Nicole LaBouff

From the summer of 2018 through the early spring of 2019, we were collaborators on a project that aimed to explore the 18th-century Atlantic world through the lens of alcohol: Alcohol’s Empire: Distilled Spirits in the 1700s Atlantic World.  We were first inspired by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts’s (Mia) period rooms, and then by recipes found mostly in the collection of the Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine. Later, we invited Jon Kreidler, Dan Oskey, and Bentley Gillman of Tattersall Distilling to join us on the project, and they enthusiastically collaborated with us in researching and recreating a wide variety of distilled and mixed spirits from the long-18th century. From plague water and saffron bitters to “cherrie water” and two early versions of aquavitae, we spent several months exploring the mostly medicinal antecedents of modern cocktail culture. 

The first straining can be done with a wire mesh strainer and removes the larger curds along with the strips of lemon and orange zest, which were removed from the fruit using a vegetable peeler to limit the amount of bitter pith (the white inner rind) in the punch. Image courtesy of the authors.

Although the 18th century was not the era of mixed drinks or “cocktails” (those come out in force in the late 19th to early 20th centuries), one important exception was punch. This popular and convivial beverage swept the globe in the 1600s. Punch combined five basic components: citrus juice, sugar, botanicals, water, and distilled spirits – usually rum, brandy, or arrack, a beverage made from either rice, palm juice, or coconut flower sap, common throughout South and Southeast Asia. 

Some clues about punch’s origins point to India, and others to the practical needs and available resources of European sailors. The title of the recipe we decided to recreate points to this origin on ship board: “To make Milk Punch that will keep Years by Sea or Land.” As part of their victuals, sailors had increased access to distilled alcohols during the 17th century. Some European ships had citrus on hand to combat scurvy, long before such fruits were formally dolled out as rations and scientifically understood as antiscorbutics. Sugar and spices were also often part of the cargo. If punch did begin life aboard long-haul voyages, it quickly jumped ship, making its way into well-to-do homes, where people could afford costly ingredients (one citrus fruit in 18th-century Europe cost the modern equivalent of roughly $8). 

To make Milk Punch that will keep Years by Sea or Land. 

Steep the Peel of twenty Lemons, and four Seville Oranges, in six Quarts of Brandy or Rum, for twenty-four Hours; and then add two Quarts of Lemon and Orange Juice (almost three Parts of Seville Orange Juice) five Quarts of Water, four large Nutmegs grated, and two Pounds and a Half of double-refined Sugar. When these have stood twenty-four Hours, add three Quarts and a Pint of boiling Milk; then let the whole stand about twelve Hours; after which run it through a Jelly-Bag, till the Liquor becomes quite clear. This will keep good to either of the Indies

With its heavy dose of lime or lemon juice, punch was highly acidic; one way to counteract its zing was to add sugar. Another way to cut the sourness of the citrus juice was discovered somewhere in the late 1600s, and is used here: add milk! By the mid-18th century, milk punch was extremely popular and enjoyed its ride into late 19th century (and is currently seeing a bit of a resurgence in modern cocktail culture). The recipe we used in Alcohol’s Empire was published in Ireland by Mary Johnson in 1770.

The final product is an opaque lemon-yellow punch that is light, refreshing, and perfect for summer. Drink it straight like an 18th-century sailor, or top with soda like we like to do! Image courtesy of the authors.

Making Johnson’s 18th-century milk punch is an experience in textures quite unlike our modern experiences with cocktails and punches. Rather than relying on sweet juices or sodas, whey from curdled milk is what smooths the bite of the rum and citrus juice and makes this a pleasant summer beverage. When boiling milk is added to the punch in the third step, it immediately curdles (see video) in a process that is essentially the same as making paneer, ricotta, or other soft cheeses. When it meets milk at a high temperature, lemon juice causes the separation of milk solids from the whey. When the milk punch is strained a few times and the curds are removed alongside the citrus peel, the whey remains to give the drink a much smoother mouthfeel, and a taste that, at least to us, is slightly tangy and yogurty. Being able to remove the milk solids from the punch also has the benefit of ensuring that the punch is shelf stable, which is why Johnson could assert that her punch would keep during the voyage to “either of the Indies,” meaning either the Americas or Asia.

This video shows what happens when boiling milk is added to the punch in the third step.

The milk immediately curdles, with milk solids hanging down from the top as the punch steams from the milk’s heat.

Emily Beck is the assistant curator of the Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine at the University of Minnesota. She received her PhD from the Program in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at the University of Minnesota. Her research focuses broadly on histories of medicine, pharmacy, and making in early modern Europe.

Nicole LaBouff is associate curator of textiles at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and worked previously in the Department of Costume and Textiles at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She received her PhD in history from the University of California, Irvine. Her research deals with the intersection of art, science, and women’s domestic work in early modern Europe, with interests spanning needlework, botany, and distilling. 

Teaching Recipes in the Wangensteen Library

By Emily Beck

Over the course of my graduate career at the University of Minnesota, I’ve become interested in the ways that libraries function as spaces for both academic and public teaching. I began using recipe books with undergraduate classes in the Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine simply because I find them interesting. It has become evident, however, that they are powerful teaching tools for both students and the public: recipe books resonate with viewers because they are personal and relatable.

Medical Receipt Book, Mary Pewe, Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine, WZ250 M489 1637
Medical Receipt Book, Mary Pewe, Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine, WZ250 M489 1637

I have used the Wangensteen’s recipe book collection for teaching undergraduate History of Medicine courses. The students in these classes are typically pre-health sciences majors and are implicitly interested in healthcare, but have not often considered the history of their chosen careers. Viewing a medical recipe book gives them opportunities to get closer to historical specifics, considering individuals rather than professions. For example, using an English manuscript from 1637 that is easy to read and quite large, I encourage students to reflect on the variety of illnesses and methods of treatment in the volume. By thinking about individual medical practice and health experience, students are able to more clearly grasp how humoral theory was applied on a day-to-day basis.

The Wangensteen at the Science Museum of MInnesota
The Wangensteen at the Science Museum of Minnesota, Image courtesy of Bonnie Gidzak

In addition to academic teaching and research, the Wangensteen creates exhibits with collection materials to teach the public about various aspects of the history of medicine. As I began developing the Wangensteen’s next exhibit, Bodies and Spirits: Health and the History of Fermentation and Distillation (September 2015-May 2016), it was clear that recipe books were an obvious choice for the display cases. They show how historical individuals frequently made fermented and distilled products, like beer and wine, and used them as medicines. In April 2015, we were invited to participate in an event on fermentation at the Science Museum of Minnesota to give a preview of the exhibit. We were the only historically focused exhibitor at this event with several thousand attendees, so standing out was imperative. We brought facsimile copies of several recipe books as well as postcards with a historical brewing recipe. The recipes captivated the attendees because they could compare them to their own home-brewing and fermenting experiences. Using recipes with this audience was an easy way to initiate discussion about the complex origins of some of the fermented products that they enjoy at home.

When the exhibit opens in September, we will use manuscript recipe books to teach our audience how closely aligned health and alcohol were in earlier time periods. These will also demonstrate how individuals were expected to undertake their production at home. We are in conversation with a local restaurant about making some of the fermented vegetables and drinks out of these manuscripts. I hope to have a tasting event where we can invite the public and the university community to try these foods while thinking about the historical rationale for making fermented products. We’re looking forward to a year of public programming around recipes as well as continuing to teach courses using recipe books.