Scandinavia. New York City. Hattiesburg, Mississippi. It’s not often those coordinates combine, let alone in a cocktail glass. But put Eamon Rockey behind the stick, and the collision begins to make more sense.
The place is Aska, the Williamsburg outpost of the micro-seasonal palate of Chef Fredrik Berselius. As co-owner and general manager, fine-dining veteran, and meticulous mixer, Rockey helms the restaurant’s drink program, and he’s built a list to echo and elongate some of the Scandinavian flavors on the menu. He’s also developed a drink list based largely on pre-made cocktails—not so much batched as brewed in advance and ready to pour when the bar is knee-deep in tickets. Thus we get the toasted caraway, aquavit, and kombucha of the Next of Kin; the cream and earth and up-front vegetal honesty of Parsnip Nog; the bark and depth of Digestif-decanted Bitters, made with molasses and local birch. The latter, a drink to be dosed judiciously after a trek through snowy woods, preferably upon dressing freshly hunted venison.
Rockey’s flavors are literally otherworldly. Add a dash of his Mississippi home—milk punches are the storied libations of riverboat gamblers and Sunday revelers—and you get the Passed Bright Milk Punch: fennel, coriander, orange peel, oolong tea, tequila, rum, and, oh yes, seven liters of fresh, local, clarified milk.
“There’s something to be said for intentionally opaque punches,” Rockey allows. “Sometimes a more rustic punch, say, with onions and aquavit, is better.” But the Passed Bright is entirely and deceptively clear, drawing on a classic clarification technique to give Scandinavian flavors a silken playground.
“Milk clarification [has] history, and I love that about it,” Rockey says of the process of acidifying milk to “break” it, then filtering out the clear, “slightly sweet, slightly tart” end product. Indeed, he talks of milk clarification the way a physicist might talk of general relativity resolving Mercury’s wacko trajectory around the sun, albeit with slightly lower stakes. “Texturally, clarified milk lends an unctuousness to whatever it is intended to compliment,” says Rockey, who uses the technique to graft spice and depth onto something resembling liquid velour. “Visually, it is capable of stripping even deeply-toned substances of their colors, while still allowing them to express their fundamental aromatics.” Thus tannic oolong tea and rich brown aged rum come along for the clarification ride, stripped of their bitterness and color before coming out clean and clear on the other side.
That gentle hoodwink—serving a patron something that looks essentially like añejo tequila on the rocks but tastes worlds away—is one of the guilty little pleasures of mixology. “People who think they don’t like dark spirits all of a sudden love the dark, rum-based milk punch. It plays with their heads a little bit.” Normally achieving something deceptive requires the toy box of molecular gastronomy, but milk clarification is one of the early low-fi classics. All you need is acid and milk and filtration, and even then there’s room to play.
“I recommend bartenders make a few classic milk punches to get the technique down,” says Rockey. “At that point, you can just start mixing and matching.” The Passed Bright, for instance, is built on lemon juice and local Battenkill Valley Creamery milk. “But swapping out fruit or vegetable juices in the recipe or using vinegar in lieu of the lemon juice, can yield some really spectacular and interesting riffs on the traditional beverage,” he says. Which is to say, bartenders should love milk clarification; it's texturally luscious, visually confusing, and friendly to experimentation. “If you find a combination of ingredients that create a flavor profile that harmonizes, it is always fun to bring them all together and strip them of anything visually identifying.”
Bartender’s bonus: milk punches age. Or at least some of them do. Once you’ve combined clarified milk with a spirit, it can mellow out in your walk-in. “Milk punches made with blanco tequila or cachaça can age, but I prefer them young and primary,” says Rockey, likening young milk punch to the “electric” energy of Spätlese Riesling. “However, milk punches made with bourbon or rye are often off-kilter until they’ve had time to rest in the bottle for at least a few months. It takes the edge off and makes for a much more pleasant punch.” Pleasant punch—incidentally two words describing the goal of mixology, and the Passed Bright Milk Punch is no doubt among the most pleasant, luscious ways get there.