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.