It’s creamy, it’s frothy, it’s sweet, and boozy, and delicious. It’s Bourbon Milk Punch, and it’s how your Christmas morning should look. It’s also your new favorite drink for Sunday brunch. Never heard of it? That’s totally fine. Early Christmas present!
Despite my valiant attempts, I wasn’t able to pin down the precise historical origins of Bourbon Milk Punch. I did learn that there’s another type of milk punch, which is made with boiled milk and various liquors, then strained until clear (which renders a more stable liquor that will hold without refrigeration). That beverage has been around since the middle ages, in England, and Ben Franklin was apparently a fan! The sort of milk punch we’re talking about is different; it calls for fresh milk, and quick consumption. The Alcohol Professor says that our version of milk punch is pre-colonial, and that it originally included bourbon as well as gin and brandy. From my research, as well as my life experience, I think it’s safe to say that Milk Punch is a Southern Thing. It’s pretty well established that Brandy Milk Punch is a New Orleans Thing. Brennan’s, in the French Quarter, takes credit for perfecting the recipe for Brandy Milk Punch, and sells it by the pitcher at Sunday brunch. But here, we’re talking about Bourbon Milk Punch, Brandy Milk Punch’s dashing, impetuous, slightly moody younger brother.
The elements of Bourbon Milk Punch: an exercise in zen-like balance and very unzen-like ingredients.
The perfect Bourbon Milk Punch has four elements: cold, creamy, sweet, boozy. The best recipes balance these four elements. The bourbon and the milk temper each other; too much bourbon and the drink is too sharp; too little and it’s just a glass of milk. The sugar further softens the bourbon-milk interaction; too little sugar, and you have boozy milk; too much sugar and you have a dessert (and a hangover). Finally, the ice brings it all together. The bracing icy creaminess, tempered by the sharpness of the alcohol, and the complex caramel and vanilla notes of the bourbon (and vanilla extract, because, come on), makes for a near perfect cocktail. This is the drink you really want to invite to brunch.
Shaking the cocktail creates a lovely frothy foam, which is every bit as important to the cocktail as the other elements. Shaking a cocktail with ice does a few things: it chills the drink down quickly, which is especially important when the drink is served straight up; it brings the alcohol into contact with melting ice (you know, water) which brings out the complexity in liquor; finally, it incorporates air into the drink. In order to quickly cool down your cocktail without adding a lot of water, a larger ice cube is better. We have these large silicone ice cube trays; the larger the cube, the less it melts while you’re shaking your cocktail.
When you don’t want to incorporate air into your cocktail, you stir it with ice; but here we want the air! Shake the Bourbon Milk Punch hard over ice for at least 30 seconds. We want a frothy head, which is not only enjoyable in its own right, it’s also where the nutmeg lives. You can then either serve it straight up in a chilled coupe, or in an old fashioned glass over ice. We tried both (all in the name of research!), and both have their benefits. Serving the drink over ice helps keep it extra cold, which is one of our four elements. But, with extra ice comes more water; if you go this route, the large ice cubes will keep the drink from getting too watery. Although I liked both, there’s something so elegant about serving the drink straight up in a coupe, especially with the light dusting of nutmeg on top.
We’re dedicated. To bourbon.
My husband and I tried a few different recipes in order to settle on the right mix of booze, milk, cream, and sweetener. We even tried a Brandy Milk Punch recipe, just to make sure that we preferred bourbon. (Spoiler: we prefer bourbon. We always prefer bourbon.) The brandy makes the drink more delicate, so if bourbon is too harsh for you, try it with brandy. We tried various ratios of booze to milk to sweetener. We tried different bourbons and whiskeys, different types of sweeteners, different ratios of milk to cream. We’re that dedicated. In the end, we found that an equal booze to milk-cream ratio is about right, with the sweetener clocking in at 1/4 part. So, for two ounces of bourbon, you add two ounces of milk (or a milk-cream mixture) and one-half ounce of sweetener. The recipes we liked best followed this basic ratio. Remember: if it’s too harsh, just add a little more milk/cream and a little more sugar. If it’s too loud, turn it down.
After all of our testing, we arrived at three winners:
Coming in at Third Place, we have this recipe from the New York Times that calls for rum, in addition to the bourbon. We found that this recipe is delicious with the right rum. My husband and I tried it with Appleton Estates and it worked perfectly. My brother, however, tried it with Goslings, which is a sweeter, darker (and all around better) rum, and he found the cocktail too dark and too sweet. My theory is that Appleton Estates is a little harsher, and a lot lighter in color, than Goslings, so it doesn’t sweeten it up or darken it down too much. Remember, Bourbon Milk Punch shouldn’t be too anything. It should be the perfect balance of sweet, creamy, cold, and boozy. It should also be white, with a nice frothy head (because remember, that’s where the nutmeg lives).
Coming in at Second Place, this recipe from W & P Design, which calls for maple syrup as the sweetener. We tried this recipe with both Crown Royal (while it’s not a bourbon, it’s a nice sweet whiskey) and with Bulleit Bourbon. It’s better with the Crown because with bourbon, the addition of maple syrup makes it just a little too sweet and dark. Maple syrup is denser than water (and booze) so when you pour it in, it literally sinks to the bottom and results in a heavier texture to the drink. It’s a tasty drink, but it’s better in the evening than at Sunday brunch.
Finally, coming it at First, we have this recipe from Bread Booze Bacon, which we adapted slightly. The result is everything that Bourbon Milk Punch should be: cold, creamy, frothy, sweet, and boozy. It’s light enough to have early in the day, along with your eggs benedict, before wandering through the French Quarter looking for that one voodoo shop. Or, you know, with your boo on Christmas morning, while opening presents.
Bourbon Milk Punch, adapted from Bread Booze Bacon
Makes 2 small cocktails
4 oz. whole milk
2½ tablespoon half-and-half
3 oz. good bourbon (we used Bulleit)
4 teaspoons powdered (confectioner’s) sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
freshly grated nutmeg
two coupe glasses (white wine glasses would also work)
Pack your glasses with ice and fill with just enough water to cover. Leave to chill while you mix the drink.
Add all ingredients except nutmeg to a cocktail shaker with ice, preferably a large ice cube, but with no more than a few normal-sized pieces of ice. Shake hard for 30 seconds. Remove ice from shaker with a spoon and discard. Empty ice water from glasses and pour cocktail into glasses. Use spoon to distribute the frothy foamy head to each glass. Grate a small amount of nutmeg over the top of your cocktails. Sip. Delight. Praise the long-deceased New Orleans resident who came up with this brilliant cocktail. Plan your next trip to New Orleans. Add more nutmeg if desired.