Mastering Clarified Milk Punches with Darren Leaney

Words by Jane Ryan & Darren Leaney

Photography by Parker Blain

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Clarified milk punches have been doing the rounds since the 1700s but no one makes them quite as deliciously as Capitano’s manager Darren Leaney. This cocktail may take time and a few practice runs but the soft, round flavours of these drinks and their rich textures are well worth mastering.

A traditional milk punch is made up of booze, milk and other flavours – be it spices, citrus, coffee, or fruits. Everything goes together except the milk, which is introduced as a final step, causing the mixture to either naturally curdle due to the acidity of the other ingredients or is induced to do so with the addition of some more acidity. The curds are then strained out using a coffee filter, leaving a liquid that is clear and stable, and usually very delicious.

But why go to all that bother? And if you’ve never made one before, trust us – it is far more of a bother than shaking up a Daquiri and requires a lot more forward planning. What it produces, however, is something of a magic trick. Firstly, there’s the unparalleled texture that is both viscous and creamy – all from a liquid that looks like water. More than this, the milk also softens the flavours by removing phenolic compounds from the alcohol via the casein-rich curds, improving the overall cohesion of the drink. A well-made milk punch has no discernible elements as with classic cocktails, you can’t identify rum, lime and sugar. It’s all one liquid that can go from really rich and viscous, to something bright like a Tom Collins.

How to master the Milk Punch

IT’S ALL IN THE MILK

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Rule one of milk punches: use full fat milk. Skim milks, nut milks, soy, oat and coconut milk won't curdle as well and therefore won't clarify as well, meaning your end result will be cloudy. If you want to use something like a coconut milk for flavour you'll need to cut it with full fat diary milk. Unfortunately these drinks aren't vegan friendly, however other animal milks do work, such as goat, sheep and even camel.

The first decision of building your milk punch is whether you’re going to flavour the milk. You definitely don’t have to, classic milk punches recipes don’t and if not you can move on to step two – picking the other ingredients. But if you want to use the milk as more than a clarification technique and texture additive then here’s how to go about that.

“I can’t think of anything off the top of my head that you couldn’t infuse. But then so many flavours would be just as good in your cocktail as a syrup or wine rather than gently extracted at a low temperature through milk. Stuff like spices, cocoa, biscuits, bread – anything glutenous really – is great to infuse in milk and otherwise might be too powerful in a drink.”

Brioche, bread and biscuits can be infused in alcohol too, however milk is a great alternative for drawing out these flavours and comes with an added bonus compared to alcohol - it's much more cost-effective. Any bread-like ingredient is going to soak up a lot of liquid and it’s far cheaper to lose volume when it comes to milk than it is vodka. If your infusion goes wrong then you’ve probably lost yourself $5 rather than $55.

“There’s not anything that you shouldn’t do though – it’s all trial and error,” says Darren whose famous Tiramisu Milk Punch infuses crushed lady finger biscuits (also known as Savoiardi biscuits) in full fat milk for an hour before straining and using to make the punch. It’s not his first recipe using milk to bring a bready flavour into a cocktail either. In his role at Dinner by Heston, the bar team decided to replicate the restaurant’s famous tipsy cake dessert as a cocktail. A milk infused with brioche was able to provide the base to which the caramel and pineapple flavours could be added.

“Milk is a different way of putting flavours into a drink that isn’t a syrup or a ferment or a distillation but still gives you clean, surprising results,” says Darren.

And how much milk? Traditional recipes use a 4:1 punch mixture to milk ratio and for the most part that works out well. The recipe at the end of this article however uses more and Darren explains why further on.

MORE IS MORE WHEN IT COMES TO FLAVOUR

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Now you’ve got your infused or plain milk, you can assemble all the other ingredients into one punch mix. Just remember don’t combine the milk with this mixture until everything is ready as once it curdles there’s no way to reverse the process. At this stage you can infuse alcohol, mix with wines, make a cold coffee or tea infusion with citrus, juice a pineapple; whatever it is you need to do to create the flavour of the drink.

“The more I’ve played with these, the more I’ve realised anything can be clarified. Anything can work but it still needs to be a harmonious collection of flavours – if you put two things together that don’t work and clarify with milk, it’ll just taste like a milky diluted version of that, which is not good,” says Darren.

“The thing I think about is how much flavour is going to be stripped by milk clarification. More is more. You want something over-flavoured before you wash it with the milk so when you get that resulting clarification, you end up with a beautifully textured drink that is more subtle.”

Darren advises several test runs to understand how the flavours pull through the process and if their quantities need to be dropped or added too. “Taste as you go before you clarify but you’ll often find that if the mixture is either too sweet, strong or bitter, it becomes not enough once it’s been clarified.”

To keep using Darren’s Tiramisu Milk Punch example, he makes a cocoa rum by cooking sous vide cacao nibs and plantation dark rum for 30 min at 52 degrees before it’s chilled and strained. To this he adds cold filter coffee, pennyweight muscat, gomme syrup, Mr Black coffee liqueur and lactic acid solution (more on this below).

CAUSING THE CURDS + HOT VS. COLD MILK

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Once your punch mixture is ready this is added to your milk, and not the other way around. If you pour your milk into the punch you'll get clumps of curds suspended irregularly within the punch wherever the milk has initially come into contact, coagulating immediately. This once again means it won't clarify properly and you'll end up with a cloudy final liquid. Pouring your punch mixture into the milk drops the PH of the milk more slowly and it curdles en mass, trapping the impurities from the other ingredients cohesively, not in patches.

Depending on what ingredients you’ve selected your punch mix is either acidic enough to cause the milk to curdle on its own, or it might need to have more acidity added in. You’ll only know this once you pour your other ingredients in with the milk and wait. If it doesn’t start curdling within 10 minutes, Darren advises adding either citrus juice, 5ml at a time, or a lactic acid solution – 6g lactic acid to 60g filtered water, stir to dissolve and again add a little bit at a time. For reference, the Tiramisu Milk Punch uses 30ml of the lactic acid solution to a litre of the punch mixture and milk combined.

“Lactic acid is a trick I picked up from the team at Three Sheets in London,” says Darren. “Instead of introducing another element (citrus), lactic acid is a milk derivative and tastes like a creamy sharp lemon which helps build that luxurious, viscous mouthfeel in the drink.”

Most of the old school milk punch recipes call for the milk to be heated prior to adding the other ingredients to it. Here’s what Benjamin Franklin had to say: “boil three quarts of milk and put to the rest hot as you take it off the fire.” The reason for heating the milk is so it curdles more quickly. However, Darren says, “I have only had success with cold milk but almost everything I’ve read tells you to heat it. Camper English published an article that noted he consistently had better results with cold milk which I read as we were struggling with the milk punch recipe at Dinner, it just wasn’t clarifying. One day we tried it cold and it all came together.”

FROM CURDS TO CLEAR LIQUID

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Once your curds are forming, stir the mixture gently to mop up the curds. This means they’ll start attracting each other and properly split the mixture into curds and whey. “The surface should look like an extreme close up of egg shell, which is how you know it’s ready to strain. Pop a coffee or oil filter into your chinois and strain the mixture through. For the first ten minutes it will come out a little cloudy but as soon as it starts running clear repass the first bit and you’ll be left with a crystal clear milk punch,” says Darren.

“The curds that have formed get stuck in the filter and they form a secondary layer for the whey mixture to drip through. I found when using hot milk it does curdle faster but the curds form in clumps that won’t form that second net in the filter. This is why we couldn’t achieve a clear milk punch initially at Dinner by Heston.”

Today the Milk Punch has once again become a staple item on menus. Maybe Sammy in Sydney boasted a delicious coffee and tequila number on a previous menu and the newly opened Gimlet in Melbourne is featuring their own with tequila and bergamot. “It is a flex from the bartender because they get to show off scientific know-how – but it’s also the wow-factor. You’re served a clear drink on a block of big ice but it has amazing texture and all the flavours are there, bright but muted at the same time,” says Darren.

“You learn so much about making drinks when you play with a milk punch. In a normal cocktail you have sweet, sour and strong and if you want a richer mouth feel then you add more sugar and balance it out. In a drink like the Tiramisu Milk Punch you need it to be rich and warming otherwise it wouldn’t taste like a tiramisu, but you can’t just add more sugar because then it would become too sweet so to get that extra mouth feel I added way more milk than normal, then to cut through that by adding more filter coffee – so those two components end up adding the sweet and sour element which provides the balance of the drink,” Darren explains.

Darren Leaney’s Tiramisu Milk Punch

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Shopping List:
140g cacao nibs
700ml Plantation Dark rum - new name was T.B.C at time of writing
150g lady finger / savoiardi biscuits
750ml full cream milk
120ml cold filter coffee
187.5ml Pennyweight muscat
45ml gomme syrup
45ml Mr Black coffee liqueur
6g lactic acid
800ml empty bottle
Coffee filters
Large zip lock bags

Method:FIRST STEP, make the cocoa rum. Seal a large zip lock bag with the 140g cacao nibs and 700ml plantation dark rum. If your bag isn't big enough do it in batches. Cook sous vide for 30 min at 52 degrees. Chill and strain through a chinois.

SECOND STEP, make the Savoiardi milk. Crush 150g of lady finger biscuits then pour 750ml full cream milk over them, infuse for one hour then strain through a chinois.

THIRD STEP, combine the following in a jug, stir to combine:
90ml cocoa rum
120ml cold filter coffee
187.5ml pennyweight muscat
45ml gomme syrup
45ml Mr Black coffee liqueur
30ml lactic acid solution (6g lactic acid to 60g filtered water, stir to dissolve)

To 525ml of your Savoiardi milk, add the mixture from the third step, stir in gently to ‘mop up’ the curds. Leave it to split for 10 minutes and then strain through coffee filter paper into a bottle. Shelf life should last a year.

To Serve:
75ml Tiramisu Milk Punch
POUR into a chilled rocks glass over ice. No garnish.

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