Dare to add dairy when mixing up holiday cheer

By Jason Wilson
Special to The Washington Post
Updated 12/21/2012 12:48 PM
  • Eggnog is a popular dairy-based cocktail. Try making it by the glass instead of by the pitcher.

    Eggnog is a popular dairy-based cocktail. Try making it by the glass instead of by the pitcher.

  • Eggnog is a popular dairy-based cocktail. Try making it by the glass instead of by the pitcher.

    Eggnog is a popular dairy-based cocktail. Try making it by the glass instead of by the pitcher. Thinkstock

In the grand history of American drinking, the combination of dairy and booze makes for a dubious chapter. In fact, I would guess that the category of drinks mostly likely to be described as "gross" would have to be those that involve milk or cream.

Consider, for starters, this infamous trio of dairy-based cocktails: the Mudslide (that chain-restaurant staple of vodka, Kahlua, Irish Cream and cream), the Grasshopper (the vaguely embarrassing mix of green crème de menthe, crème de cacao and cream), and the White Russian (the choice of every "Big Lebowski" fan with vodka, Kahlua or Tia Maria and milk). Tasty to some, but not exactly the sorts of concoctions you build a rich legacy upon.

If there is ever a time when milk and spirits should come together in harmony, it is for the holiday eggnog. But even this tradition has long swerved in a bad direction. When I see those cartons of eggnog making their annual appearance in the supermarket, I get queasy.

"I think dairy-based cocktails have such a mixed reputation because they're easy to flub," says Dan Searing, whose book "The Punch Bowl" (Sterling Epicure, 2011) includes a section on milk-based punches. "Balance is even more important than usual with such a rich ingredient."

Now, I love Searing's book and I've been making drinks out of it for over a year and a half. But time and again I've intentionally skipped over that particular chapter, until the weather turned cold. I had been in the mood for a new type of holiday punch, and after experimenting with just about every ingredient under the sun, I figured, why not milk?

When dealing with dairy cocktails, there are basically two kinds. One group calls for milk or cream as an ingredient that you recognize in the final drink. A classic example is the Alexander, whether with gin, brandy or something unique, such as pear liqueur.

The other group of dairy cocktails mixes milk with citrus. It curdles, separating out the whey, removing the fats and leaving the proteins. Yes, I can hear your reaction: "Milk and citrus? Ewww."

"Separating the curd from the whey can be a little scary the first time, especially when you've always been told that curdled milk is gross," Searing says. "Have faith in the wisdom of our forefathers. The first milk punch I made was from Ben Franklin's famous recipe." In fact, milk punches date back to the reign of Queen Victoria.

History, of course, is all well and good. But the pressing question on milk punches would seem to be: Why? Milk -- or at least whey -- brings a fascinating, creamy texture without being too ... well, milky. It's sort of like the memory of milk without the coating, cloying feeling in your mouth.

"What it means for your palate is a silky texture that's different from unseparated dairy but deeply pleasing in its own way," says Searing, who is also a spirits specialist with the American Still Life Collection, based in Ashland, Va., and partner in Room 11 in Washington.

Here, I've included recipes for a classic centuries-old milk punch using brandy and rum, as well as a new-wave milk punch that calls for blanco tequila and St-Germain elderflower liqueur.

Searing preaches patience when you work with milk punches. Make sure all the solids are strained out, even if you have to strain through a clean dishcloth or a pillow case (as Searing says he does). "It doesn't pay to try to rush straining out the curd once separated. Just remember to allow time for gravity to do the work," he says. Searing also recommends using organic milk for cocktails.

If fooling around with curds and whey isn't really your style, I'd stick with the less labor-intensive dairy libations. Foremost among these in December is, of course, eggnog. Almost all recipes call for eggnog to be made in a large batch, like a punch. But I like to make my eggnogs by the glass, the same way I'd make someone a bloody mary.

In 19th century Baltimore, eggnog was a New Year's Day tradition. Young swells went door-to-door sipping the local version, which called for a mix of Madeira wine, brandy and rum. I have included a delicious by-the-glass recipe for this.

I also revisit the Grasshopper, one of those infamous creamy drinks. To be fair, the Grasshopper began life as a New Orleans staple. But the problem with the Grasshopper now is that contemporary crème de menthe is horrible. I saw that firsthand a few weeks ago, when I tasted a crème de menthe from the 1940s which was transcendent.

At home, I ditched the crème de menthe, in favor of Branca Menta, the minty, 80-proof cousin of the bracing Fernet Branca from Italy. I also eschewed the heavy cream that's often called for in this type of cocktail, going with light cream instead. The result: More of a true cocktail than a dessert in a glass. It was the polar opposite of gross.

Let us hope we'll never live to see a version sold in a carton in the supermarket.

• Jason Wilson is the editor of TableMatters.com. Follow him on Twitter @boozecolumnist.

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