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Once a party staple, 17th century-style punch makes a return

When most Americans hear the term punch, they likely think of the fruity, sweet non-alcoholic variety served at summer backyard parties. If you were to ask a Colonial settler the same question, they would have a completely different style in mind.

Punch has a long history as a communal cocktail dating back to the 17th century when British soldiers brought the idea back from India. It has been said that when they reached warmer climates, their beer rations spoiled, so they turned to drinks made with rum and local juices.

After returning to England, the punch concept quickly caught on and soon moved over the pond to the American colonies. In fact, punches were so popular during the American Independence that there were 76 individual punches made in a post-Declaration celebration. Imagine cleaning up after that party.

Over time, teetotalers and U.S. Prohibition led to alcohol being slowly nixed from punch. This is probably why we think of punch as only a party starter for kids birthdays.

However, thanks to modern bartenders reaching back to the annals of cocktail history, punch is making a comeback. This is particularly true at New Orleans brunch tables, where the following milk punch recipe has become a staple in the Crescent City.

Most milk punches employ brandy as the spirit, but bourbons and rums are also being used in order to lessen the sweetness. I prefer bourbon. For a richer taste, substitute half and half instead of milk, or use equal amounts of both.

In this column’s next installment, prepare to have your mind and palate blown with a clear milk punch recipe, a favorite of Charles Dickens.


New Orleans Bourbon Milk Punch

2 oz. Four Roses Bourbon or other premium bourbon

4 oz. whole milk (or half and half)

1 oz. simple syrup

1/4 oz. vanilla extract

Freshly grated nutmeg

In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, combine bourbon, milk, simple syrup and vanilla extract. Shake for 20-30 seconds and pour into a chilled double old-fashioned glass or tumbler. Garnish with freshly grated nutmeg and sip quietly (or not so quietly) by the fire.

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