A Modern Replication of a Colonial Cocktail in Three Parts
I am not a wizard in the kitchen, not by any means. My culinary feats don’t range far beyond cold breakfast cereal, grilled cheese, and when I’m lucky, not breaking the yolks when preparing my eggs over-easy. Beverages, on the other hand, are another story altogether; it seems I have quite the knack for creating my own brandies, infused vodkas, and homemade limoncello.
With this self-taught confidence and determination in hand, it’s no surprise I quickly gathered the ingredients necessary to make my own batch of milk punch using Benjamin Franklin’s own recipe. I first learned of it after reading Ashlie Hughes’s The Aperitif column at the Huntington-Belle Haven, VA Patch, a local suburban publication where she writes on featured drinks and cocktails.
In her Milk Punch post, Ashlie explains: “The recipe I chose comes from the book Vintage Sprits and Forgotten Cocktails by Ted Haigh and calls for a combination of rum, brandy, milk, vanilla extract and simple syrup… According to the Massachusetts Historical Society, the boozy drink has roots dating back to the 18th century–Benjamin Franklin even had a recipe he shared with friends.”
As she and I are occasional pen pals and both contributors to Metrocurean, I reached out for a bit more background on her story. “I have a weird obsession with colonial era beverages so I’m interested in trying Franklin’s recipe,” she told me. Certainly as good a reason as any. Yet she hadn’t tried to re-create it herself. And who can blame her? The Historical Society calls Franklin’s punch “lemony, with a slightly medicinal kick.”
But I’m not one to scare easily at questionable food or drink descriptions: I’ve subsisted on military rations; sampled cow’s tongue in Moscow; and shared kofta in downtown Baghdad. So words like medicinal and lemony cause more curiosity than hesitation. I was determined to create a batch, using Franklin’s own words as my guide. Thankfully, the Historical Society provided just that – in two ways actually: several high-resolution JPEGs as well as a neatly formatted text in Times New Roman font.
It’s time to turn back the bartending clock.
The Massachusetts Historical Society listed Benjamin Franklin’s Milk Punch recipe as their Object of the Month in December 2004. I found it many years later, in December 2011, when it was referenced by a fellow writer and drinker.
Franklin’s original recipe was sent as a letter to friend and longtime correspondent James Bowdoin on October 11, 1763. The Historical Society provides a touch of context: “Franklin and Bowdoin corresponded for forty years, often discussing their mutual scientific interests. In his letter, Franklin suggested he stop at Bowdoin’s door the following morning, and mentioned scientific works that he would have delivered to Bowdoin. Referring to the enclosed recipe, Franklin wrote, ‘Herewith you have the Receipt you desired.'” Perhaps Franklin wanted to stop by the next morning to also toss a few back with his friend?
Regardless, Franklin’s recipe – which “shares characteristics of two beverages– possets and syllabubs” – reads, according to the Society’s translation of Franklin’s handwritten script, as follows:
Take 6 quarters of Brandy, and the Rinds
of 44 Lemons pared very thin; Steep the
Rinds in the Brandy 24 hours; then strain
it off. Put to it 4 Quarts of Water,
4 large Nutmegs grated, 2 quarts of
Lemon Juice, 2 pound of double refined
Sugar. When the Sugar is dissolv’d,
boil 3 Quarts of Milk and put to the rest
hot as you take it off the Fire, and stir
it about. Let it stand two Hours; then
run it thro’ a Jelly-bag till it is clear;
then bottle it off. –
Franklin’s instructions clearly produce a large batch of punch, using roughly 15 quarts (nearly four gallons) of liquid, almost four dozen lemons, and two pounds of sugar. Although the recipe doesn’t include any indications of “number served,” we can estimate a large group. It seems the Historical Society understood this as well; they provide “a modern adaptation…with reduced proportions to one quarter of those suggested by Franklin.”
Yet even this reduced amount was too much for just me. So I decided to halve the Society’s numbers, thereby creating a batch just one-eighth the size of Franklin’s specifications. My back-of-the-envelope calculations indicated it would make just a little less than a half gallon. A perfect amount for one person, to be enjoyed over a long holiday weekend.
With the Massachusetts Historical Society’s “modern adaptation” of Benjamin Franklin’s 1863 Milk Punch recipe in hand, I decided to make a smaller, one eighth sized batch of Franklin’s punch – just enough for me. After reviewing the list of required ingredients, I had everything I needed, save fresh lemons.
A half hour later, I was back from the neighborhood grocery with six bright yellow lemons. My reduced-size batch’s exact ingredients were:
- 3 cups brandy (I used Remy Martin V.S.)
- Zest from 5 ½ lemons
- 1 cup lemon juice (squeezed from the zested lemons)
- 2 cups water
- 1 ½ cups whole milk
- 1 ½ teaspoons powdered nutmeg
- 18 tablespoons sugar (1 heaping cup)
After zesting the lemons and transferring the zest into a large half gallon mason jar, I added the three cups of Remy Martin. Here, Franklin’s instructions are to let the contents sit for a full day, so I capped the jar and set it aside. I then juiced the lemons into a small bowl and tossed it in the fridge. The first step was complete.
The following evening, I began with straining the zest from the brandy. I used cheesecloth for this, which worked better than I had thought. The brandy was now in a large mixing bowl (I recommend using a very large bowl). I next added the lemon juice, water, nutmeg, sugar, and then stirred the whole mix until the sugar dissolved and the nutmeg mostly dissipated.
That brings us to the milk, which I considered the recipe’s most difficult and interesting ingredient. I heated the milk in a saucepan over medium heat, bringing it to a low boil without scorching or burning it. I think I used a bit too much caution here, because it felt like it took forever – you know what they say about a watched pot. Once the milk was boiling, I immediately added it to the mix, then stirred for a few minutes. The milk will curdle in the mix after a minute or so. After stirring, I let the entire mix sit in the bowl for two hours.
Following the two hour rest, Franklin instructs straining the punch through a jelly bag; the Historical Society, on the other hand, recommends using a pillow case. I first tried using a new piece of cheesecloth, but it was slow going. So my wife came up with a particularly innovative idea: she dug out our yogurt cheese strainer (for making labneh cheese) to strain the thick, frothy curd from the drink. It worked like a charm. After straining, my one eighth batch made just about three pints of milk punch.
I let the punch chill in the fridge for a bit before I tried it, but a few cubes of ice would work just fine. Just like the Historical Society’s description, my punch was indeed lemony, with just a hint of brandy and a heavy nutmeg aftertaste. The curdled milk thickens the punch so as to leave a light residue in your glass. And although I wouldn’t describe the taste as medicinal, I could see how others would.
Nonetheless, my punch was cold and refreshing, bright and puckering – a fine beverage to drink year round, or a great beverage to serve when hosting a party. So raise a glass from your own batch to Benjamin Franklin: Founding Father, statesman, inventor, and let’s not forget – drinker.
This series originally appeared in January – February 2012.