According to pretty much every milk punch primer, the core technique revolves around using an acid, such as citrus juice, to curdle milk, which creates a solid “filter” through which the liquid is strained, yielding a transparent drink.
That works just fine for sours, but what about spirit-only drinks, like Martinis and Negronis, which have largely been left out of the milk punch canon?
“It’s an unexplored opportunity,” says Daniel Villa, bartender at Supperland, a “modern Southern” restaurant in Charlotte, North Carolina, who has found a workaround using dehydrated milk powder. “A lot of guests don’t like the oddly sour finish on milk punches, even if they like the texture and roundness on the cocktail,” he explains.
Villa found his way to the technique while attempting to perfect a toasted milk Ramos Gin Fizz. Originally, he had homed in on a recipe for toasted cream that called for a 24-hour sous vide to “toast” the dairy. “It works wonderfully,” Villa recalls, “but in terms of practicality, it ties up sous-vide equipment for a long period of time.”
Then he remembered a pastry chef hack: toasted milk powder. (Villa isn’t a pastry chef, but says he cooks and has spent significant time in restaurants.) “Some modern kitchens use it to enhance brown-butter sauces like beurre noisette,” he recalls. “I stumbled backwards into realizing I could hijack the method for milk punching.”
The technique eliminates the need for citrus or other acids, which play a role in “breaking” apart milk, separating it into solid curds and liquid whey. By comparison, powdered milk is “already broken,” explains Villa. “The milk’s already been separated once, during the drying process. It has whey protein and casein”—components of curds, through which the milk punch is filtered—but “the enzymes have broken down to some degree.”
Even when it’s been rehydrated, the milk doesn’t require acid to break down again, especially once introduced to alcohol. The proteins will clump on their own, creating a filter bed to clarify the drink. The technique also works with powdered coconut milk for a vegan variation, he adds. (The process for using the coconut milk is identical to working with powdered dairy milk, though it requires a little more patience to strain.)
A second advantage: The dried milk can be toasted in the oven or on a stovetop, producing the browning referred to as the Maillard reaction, the chemical reaction that causes bread to taste toasted or meat to taste charred—a different flavor than caramelized sugar, he notes.
“The toasting option is a way to inject a lot of flavor,” Villa says. “You’re getting that luxurious body you get from milk punch from the whey. You’re getting the flavor of a brown-butter milk wash, but it’s cleaner at the end of the day—and less tricky.”
The toasted Ramos holy grail didn’t pan out, at least not via the milk powder route (“a gritty mess, it was undrinkable”). But he’s successfully used the combination of techniques in drinks such as the Smooth as Butter, a clarified tequila-based Vieux Carré riff; the Universal Veil, a Rob Roy clarified with mushroom-infused coconut milk (“it smells like the forest floor”); and Postcards to Italy, a white Negroni with a savory twist: It’s milk-punched with coconut milk powder infused with Japanese dashi, which lends subtle umami tones.
“It just opens up an entirely new category with milk punches,” he says. “You could even use it as a treatment for specific spirits or ingredients,” such as a clarified liqueur.
That said, he’s excited to see how others interpret the process, “especially bartenders from other cultures who have a vibrant history of working with coconut or milk in sauces or soups or culinary goods,” Villa says. “I’m looking forward to seeing where other people will take it.”