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A ladle cushions the fall of a stream of in-process milk punch, preventing it from disturbing the “nest” as it falls into a clarification medium. Courtesy of Ashley Sears at Betony

This Michelin-Starred Restaurateur Traded Fine Dining for Ben Franklin’s Favorite Milk Cocktail

It’s not often therecipient of a Michelin star leaves the restaurant industry, but Eamon Rockeyisn’t afraid to reinvent himself.

The former general managerof Betony, which closed its doors at the end of 2016 despite being a criticalsuccess, has entered the bottled spirits business with a product you might notexpect. In fact, unless you’re a professional bartender or cocktail historian,you’re probably unaware that Rockey’s MilkPunch is the first bottled milk punch to hit shelves since the late1800’s. But why is this cherished creation only now just returning to liquorstores? And why would a decorated hospitality professional leave the industryfor a product whose last celebrity influencer was Ben Franklin? When it comesto this story, it’s not just the milk that needs clarification.

Eamon Rockey with Rockey's milk punch.
Eamon Rockey with Rockey's milk punch. Courtesy of Rockey's

What’s Old Is New Again

Milk punch, which legendhas it was popularized by English writer Aphra Behn, began first attractingattention in the late 1680s before becoming a common beverage of choice throughthe 18th and 19th centuries. “To the best of my knowledge, the first and lastmilk punch to be sold in the world was produced only in the U.K., only in thelate 1800’s. Following prohibition, along with so many other classic spiritsand cocktail traditions, milk punch faded away,” explains Rockey, who’s beentinkering with recipes since discovering the drink courtesy of bartenderCameron Bogue at Bar Pleiades.

Combining tea, juices, citrus, and warm milk to produce a milk punch base. Courtesy of Ashley Sears at Betony

Thanks to historicalcocktail books like Jerry Thomas’ Bartender’sGuide, bartenders were able to revitalize long forgotten recipes for a newgeneration to discover. In tasting milk punch, Rockey connected with a friendthat followed him wherever he went, from tending bar at Eleven Madison Park tooverseeing Betony. So, what makes it such a beloved treasure?

“Milk punch is a draw for bartenders because it combinesthe acid of citrus with the creamy buttery nature of milk in one clearbeautiful glass,” says Dorothy Elizabeth, head bartender at  L’Avenue and Le Chalet at Saks Fifth Avenue. As so much of what defines agood cocktail is based on a drink’s ability to create a textural and flavorfulsensation, a liquid that can hit multiple senses without overshadowing theother is a prized commodity.

As part of the filtering process, un-clarified milk punch must be repeatedly poured over a tightening nest of curds until it passes through completely clear. Courtesy of Ashley Sears at Betony

However, for any student of chemical engineering likeElizabeth, the idea that milk and citrus can work together to create somethingdelicious is fascinating. “The citric acid in lemons and limes has a pH ofabout two, so when acidifying milk, the dairy proteins start to unravel sincethe proteins start to denature,” Elizabeth explains. “The casein and the otherproteins start to bond together into one solidified mess aka curdled milk. Somilk punch takes the roots of all the reasons why you would not ever add milkand lemon together and creates something delightful.”

The combination of historical importance and coolchemistry lesson is usually enough to get bartenders to experiment with makingtheir own recipe. However, making milk punch from scratch requires patience andpractice. Investing hundreds of dollars into ingredients only to watch thatinvestment turn into an undrinkable mess is not for the faint of heart. Perhapsthat’s why a notable milk punch practitioner is in a prime position to makelife easier for bars that can’t find the time, talent, or resources to maketheir own.

Making Things Clear

To make milk punch, you’ll want to assemble a variety ofingredients that you already enjoy to begin with because milk punch takes onthe flavor profile of those ingredients. Though recipes vary, the milk isalways boiled, the liquid mixture must be strained, and you’re going to have towait. If the strained liquid isn’t absolutely clear,something went wrong.  Rockey’sachieves its versatility by combining pineapple, apple, green tea, black tea,and citrus as its core flavorful ingredients,” Rockey says. “I use just a bitof neutral grain spirit to stabilize it, and that’s it.”

A classic milk punch contains some combination of sweet fruits, tea, citrus, milk, and spirit. Courtesy of Ashley Sears at Betony

Gareth Howells, the nationalwhisky ambassador for John Dewar & Sons, is another hospitalityprofessional who has made it a point to include milk punches at hisestablishments: “I always made my milk punch using the ‘traditional’ or‘conventional’ method. This in essence meant that I would create the milk punchin stages, normally taking around seven to 10 days per batch and always breakthe punch with the alcoholic component mixed in prior to filtering.”

Making varieties of milkpunch for one or two locations is difficult, but building a business plan thatinvolves mass production based off such a precise methodology? It’s onepossible reason the craft production of bottled milk punch hasn’t followed inthe footsteps of easy to produce and market spirits. “To take the jump into thecommercial production of milk punch when even the smallest detail can derailthe process is honestly quite staggering,” Howells says. “Clarified milk punchis technically one of the most difficult styles of drink that can be made. Itis an investment in time, a labor of love, and can cause more than a fewsleepless nights.”.

Milking a Great Reception

If the hospitality industry’s reception is anindication of the product’s mainstream potential, perhaps more bartenders willconsider transitioning into commercial production. “My first three batches wereeach 125 cases, followed by a 250-case run, and when that was fully depleted insix weeks, I upped the ante to 500 cases in early June 2019, still well under ayear on the market,” Rockey says.

A well made milk punch should be perfectly transparent- serving over a single, large piece of ice that highlights its clarity. Courtesy of Ashley Sears at Betony

The immediate success is a welcome sightconsidering the choices involved. Launching Rockey’s Milk Punch meant that Rockeycould no longer operate a bar or restaurant due to the rules and regulationsinherent in the three-tier system of alcohol distribution.  “After making the decision to launchRockey’s, I had to make peace with not operating bars and restaurants anymore,the profession I’d been committed to for my entire career,” Rockey says.

However, with a clear vision that includes developing additional flavors, the entrepreneur is keeping himself busy despite not being on the restaurant floor. “Launching Rockey’s is the best career decision I’ve ever made, and I hope others currently working as bartenders, and have a burning idea that they believe will be embraced by the world will take that leap of faith,” the brand’s founder advises. Like any good leap of faith, sometimes a drink before the jump is a good idea.

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