It’s not often that the recipient of a Michelin star leaves the restaurant industry, but Eamon Rockey isn’t afraid to reinvent himself.
The former general manager of Betony, which closed its doors at the end of 2016 despite being a critical success, has entered the bottled spirits business with a product you might not expect. In fact, unless you’re a professional bartender or cocktail historian, you’re probably unaware that Rockey’s Milk Punch is the first bottled milk punch to hit shelves since the late 1800s. But why is this cherished creation only now returning to liquor stores? And why would a decorated hospitality professional leave the industry for a product whose last celebrity influencer was Ben Franklin? When it comes to this story, it’s not just the milk that needs clarification.
What’s Old Is New Again
Milk punch, which legend has it was popularized by English writer Aphra Behn, began first attracting attention in the late 1680s before becoming a common beverage of choice through the 18th and 19th centuries. “To the best of my knowledge, the first and last milk punch to be sold in the world was produced only in the U.K., only in the late 1800s. Following Prohibition, along with so many other classic spirits and cocktail traditions, milk punch faded away,” explains Rockey, who’s been tinkering with recipes since discovering the drink courtesy of bartender Cameron Bogue at Bar Pleiades.
Thanks to historic-cocktail books like Jerry Thomas’s Bartender’s Guide, bartenders were able to revitalize long forgotten recipes for a new generation to discover. In tasting milk punch, Rockey connected with a friend who followed him wherever he went, from tending bar at Eleven Madison Park to overseeing Betony. So, what makes it such a beloved treasure?
“Milk punch is a draw for bartenders because it combines the acid of citrus with the creamy buttery nature of milk in one clear, beautiful glass,” says Dorothy Elizabeth, head bartender at L’Avenue and Le Chalet at Saks Fifth Avenue. As so much of what defines a good cocktail is based on a drink’s ability to create a textural and flavorful sensation, a liquid that can hit multiple senses without overshadowing the others is a prized commodity.
However, for any student of chemical engineering like Elizabeth, the idea that milk and citrus can work together to create something delicious is fascinating. “The citric acid in lemons and limes has a pH of about two, so when acidifying milk, the dairy proteins start to unravel since the proteins start to denature,” Elizabeth explains. “The casein and the other proteins start to bond together into one solidified mess a.k.a. curdled milk. So milk punch takes the roots of all the reasons why you would not ever add milk and lemon together and creates something delightful.”
The combination of historical importance and cool chemistry lesson is usually enough to get bartenders to experiment with making their own recipe. However, making milk punch from scratch requires patience and practice. Investing hundreds of dollars into ingredients only to watch that investment turn into an undrinkable mess is not for the faint of heart. Perhaps that’s why a notable milk punch practitioner is in a prime position to make life easier for bars that can’t find the time, talent, or resources to make their own.
Making Things Clear
To make milk punch, you’ll want to assemble a variety of ingredients that you already enjoy to begin with because milk punch takes on the flavor profile of those ingredients. Though recipes vary, the milk is always boiled, the liquid mixture must be strained, and you’re going to have to wait. If the strained liquid isn’t absolutely clear, something went wrong. “Rockey’s achieves its versatility by combining pineapple, apple, green tea, black tea, and citrus as its core flavorful ingredients,” Rockey says. “I use just a bit of neutral grain spirit to stabilize it, and that’s it.”
Gareth Howells, the national whisky ambassador for John Dewar & Sons, is another hospitality professional who has made it a point to include milk punches at his establishments: “I always made my milk punch using the ‘traditional’ or ‘conventional’ method. This in essence meant that I would create the milk punch in stages, normally taking around seven to 10 days per batch and always break the punch with the alcoholic component mixed in prior to filtering.”
Making varieties of milk punch for one or two locations is difficult, but building a business plan that involves mass production based off such a precise methodology? It’s one possible reason the craft production of bottled milk punch hasn’t followed in the footsteps of easy to produce and market spirits. “To take the jump into the commercial production of milk punch when even the smallest detail can derail the process is honestly quite staggering,” Howells says. “Clarified milk punch is technically one of the most difficult styles of drink that can be made. It is an investment in time, a labor of love, and can cause more than a few sleepless nights.”
Milking a Great Reception
If the hospitality industry’s reception is an indication of the product’s mainstream potential, perhaps more bartenders will consider transitioning into commercial production. “My first three batches were each 125 cases, followed by a 250-case run, and when that was fully depleted in six weeks, I upped the ante to 500 cases in early June 2019, still well under a year on the market,” Rockey says.
The immediate success is a welcome sight considering the choices involved. Launching Rockey’s Milk Punch meant that Rockey could no longer operate a bar or restaurant due to the rules and regulations inherent in the three-tier system of alcohol distribution. “After making the decision to launch Rockey’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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