What is the official drink of New Orleans? According to the Louisiana state legislature, it’s the Sazerac, with its old-world decadence of cognac (and later rye) and absinthe. Unofficially, others swear by the Ramos Gin Fizz, named for Henry Ramos, who ran the city’s Imperial Cabinet Saloon. But a small, though vocal, minority will make a strong case for another Crescent City favorite: milk punch.
Traditionally, milk punch is exactly what it sounds like: usually whole milk or half-and-half, combined with either brandy or bourbon, rum, some sweetness (usually simple syrup), and a touch of vanilla extract. Most bartenders will grate nutmeg or cinnamon on top. If that sounds like a great drink for the holidays, it is. In its classic form, milk punch is like a boozier, less saccharine version of a Christmas eggnog. But it’s also great with lunch, especially after a long and indulgent evening—the sort of leisurely midday idyll that makes New Orleans New Orleans.
“We make gallons of it,” says Chris Hannah, the head bartender at Arnaud’s French 75 in the French Quarter. Arnaud’s has had milk punch on its menu since the 1930s. “Every single table orders them.”
Though milk punch has a long history in Louisiana, its American origins lie in the colonial-era cities along the East Coast, back when both milk and brandy were thought to have powerful medicinal properties. From there, it spread quickly, even meriting a mention in the barman Jerry Thomas’s 1862 classic guide, How to Mix Drinks, widely regarded as the first-ever cocktail book.
Like most time-honored recipes, milk punch is flexible. You can swap out bourbon for brandy, use darker or lighter rum, add maple syrup in place of simple syrup—you name it. Last spring Parliament, a cocktail den in Dallas, made a St. Patrick’s Day–themed variation using Jameson Irish whiskey and Lucky Charms cereal. There’s even a clarified milk punch, in which hot milk is added to the booze mixture; when the milk curdles, you skim off the solids, leaving behind a clear, but still sweet and creamy, liquid. More popular along the East Coast, the clarified version has been making inroads in the South—including New Orleans itself.
Just don’t tell that to the folks at Arnaud’s, who still prefer their milk punch the old-fashioned way. And while it might not harbor the medicinal qualities once claimed, Hannah says his noontime crowd well appreciates the drink’s restorative powers. “It’s an eye-opener,” he says. “It coats your stomach. It puts you back on your feet with a little buzz.” This time of year, who couldn’t use a little of that?