Published February 10th, 2023 at 6:00 AM
Looking for a liquid magic sleight of hand to impress friends at your next cocktail party?
Stock up on clarified milk punch.
“Basically, you’re taking a mixture of ingredients and combining curdled milk. In a filter the curds form a layer, and what you’re left with tastes like nothing you started with,” says Scott Mannebach, an engineer and cocktail enthusiast living in Brookside.
Mannebach was searching the ChefSteps website for sous vide recipes when he came across a recipe for a clarified milk punch. He was “intrigued” and wound up creating a memorable milk-washed piña colada recipe that his kids posted on TikTok.
To be sure, there is an ick factor to curdled milk, as well as a fear factor when adding it to a perfectly fine rum, brandy or whiskey. That’s why Bronson Kistler recently began hosting milk punch cocktail classes at Gomer’s in Parkville.
Kistler is the brains behind Bronson’s Milk Punch, one of the nation’s first ready-to-drink bottled milk punches geared to the at-home craft cocktail enthusiast. He’s eager to demystify the clarification process.
As he pours the curdled milk mixture into a strainer lined with cheesecloth, a layer of curds forms a filter that removes molecules that cause cloudiness, bitterness and astringency by binding them to the milk proteins. The resulting clear beverage resembles white wine with the straw color of whey. It yields a surprisingly smooth, silky, velvety, dare we say “unctuous” mouthfeel.
After working as a keyboardist in a series of “synth-heavy” bands, Kistler landed a job in 2011 as a bartender at Westport Café and Bar, where he later began to experiment with a recipe for clarified milk punch he found on the internet.
“I would see the chef wince a bit when I had $300 of ingredients and added curdled milk into it. It doesn’t look appetizing,” Kistler says. Yet the milk punch became – and remains – a signature item on the cocktail menu.
By 2019, Kistler and his Westport Café buddy Joel Carron began the deep dive into codes and regulations. They found a place for production (Fountain City Ice), added a local distributor (Veritas), and got their first bottles into liquor stores in August 2021.
There are currently two flavors: original (think fall flavors of Honeycrisp apples, ginger, lemon and warm spices mingled with bourbon); and tropical (think a rum-based “pineapple daiquiri on steroids”). Another flavor is expected to drop in the spring.
Bronson’s Milk Punch is a 15.8% ABV spirit sold in a 750-milliliter bottle for a suggested retail price of $25. Kistler recommends serving the milk punch over ice, although it doesn’t need refrigeration due to clarification, which is a natural preservation method popular before the days of refrigeration.
“It’s ready for a cocktail party,” Kistler says. “I’ve done all the hard work.”
Milk punch is close kin to possets and syllabubs, both milk-based beverages long used as a cure-all for whatever ails you, or that day’s equivalent of “chicken soup,” Kistler says.
As part of the cocktail class, Kistler serves up a clarified milk punch made from a recipe Benjamin Franklin shared with a political ally in 1763. The recipe is available online from the Massachusetts Historical Society.
At first taste, Franklin’s recipe is a tad bitter, even “a bit medicinal,” according to the historical society, presumably due to the large quantity of fresh juice from nearly four dozen lemons. And the original recipe has been trimmed down to a quarter of its original yield.
In his centuries-old letter describing his milk punch, Franklin noted “mutual scientific interests.”
Despite the long history of clarification, combining fresh, unpasteurized juice with alcohol kept at an ambient temperature required rigorous modern lab analysis before Kistler won Food and Drug Administration approval for his recipe.
Currently, the only other milk punch widely available for retail sale is Rockey’s Botanical Liqueur inspired by milk punch and made in Brooklyn, New York. Kistler says the difference between the two products boils down to target audiences.
“His is more of a modernized version of milk punch that is meant to be used as an ingredient (by bartenders) where I’m trying to honor this 400-year-old method,” Kistler says. “This is a truly finished, completely naturally made, small batch-style milk punch, just like you’d get at any bar that is making it … It’s a top tier cocktail experience right in the bottle.”
Judith Evnen came across her first bottle of Bronson’s Milk Punch on a liquor store shelf and decided to take a bottle home after discovering it was made by a local artisan.
“The whole idea (of milk washing) is pretty fascinating,” says Evnen, a psychotherapist who lives in Leawood.
Initially, Evnen poured the milk punch over ice: “I just loved it. It was a treat.”
Next, she tried a milk-washed cocktail on the Clay & Fire menu, which inspired her to experiment at home. She’s currently on the hunt for new drink recipes featuring milk punch.
For a recent Kansas City Chiefs playoff game, Evnen combined Bronson’s Tropical Punch with WellBeing CBD Seltzer (about $47 for a dozen cans).
“It was so delicious, and I remember that I just felt really good after that,” she says.
After making his first batch of clarified milk punch, Mannebach has sampled milk-washed cocktails on menus at Earl’s Premier and Tailleur Restaurant.
So why buy a bottle if you can DIY?
“The process of making punch is very tedious and very unpredictable,” Kistler says. “The information is there for the people who want to do a deep dive and make it at home, but it is more of an advanced technique.”
Whether you prefer to pop the cork and pour it over ice or use it as an ingredient in your next cocktail creation, the great thing about clarified milk punch is “it can be anything you want,” Kistler says. “It could be a bespoke thing made in small batches, but this preservative methodology is also perfect for the retail market.”
Jill Wendholt Silva is a James Beard award-winning food editor and freelance writer. You can follow Silva at @jillsilvafood.