Milk Punch Is Eggnog's Lighter, More Flavorful, Southern Cousin

And it's not just for the holidays.

Boozy Refreshing Bourbon Milk Punch
Photo: Getty Images

During the holiday cocktail season, eggnog—a "punch" made with heavy cream, milk, egg yolks, and bourbon or brandy—tends to show up everywhere, much to the delight of partygoers and barflies who love its rich texture and indulgent flavors.

But if eggnog's heaviness doesn't suit your palate (or the warmer outdoor temperatures that define the holiday season in the American South), then we have a lighter alternative that's widely beloved and features many of the flavors that make eggnog so iconic: New Orleans Milk Punch.

What Is New Orleans Milk Punch?

New Orleans milk punch got its start at Brennan's, an iconic Big Easy restaurant that's been holding court in the French Quarter since the 1940s. "My mom, Ella Brennan, and her brother would host grand breakfasts at Brennan's [that] mimicked grand Creole feasts, which sometimes began with an 'eye opener,' like a brandy or bourbon milk punch," explains Ti Martin, the co-owner of Commander's Palace in New Orleans.

At its essence, New Orleans milk punch consists of whole milk, ground nutmeg, a sweetening agent (either simple syrup or powdered sugar), brandy, or bourbon, and sometimes a splash of heavy cream and a touch of vanilla extract. This mixture is then vigorously shaken with ice and served either neat or over ice cubes. Basically, it's eggnog with no eggs and less dairy.

In terms of flavor and overall drinkability, seasoned Southern bartender and cocktail consultant Jayce McConnell describes New Orleans milk punch like this: "If the White Russian is The Dude from The Big Lebowski, then milk punch is Doc Holliday from 'Tombstone'. More refined, smooth-talking, and deceptively boozier."

According to beverage director Randi Densford of Barn8 Restaurant & Bourbon Bar in Goshen, Ky., "I would describe milk punch as a cocktail that's similar to velvety vanilla ice cream. It's a classic dessert cocktail in the South."

As for Martin, she emphasizes the remarkable potential that NOLA milk punch has as a brunch libation: "It's the best day drink, so simple. If you've never had one, imagine adding vanilla, nutmeg, and bourbon or brandy to your leftover cereal milk!"

How Does Milk Punch Differ From Eggnog, and How Is It Similar?

As mentioned above, "milk punch and eggnog are very similar. The difference is that eggnog, as the name says, contains eggs," says beverage director Jose Pereiro of Storico in Atlanta, Ga. Ultimately, our sources agree that there is a lot of overlap between these drinks, but that they also have distinct differences.

"Milk punch in the winter months can be savored. I find it's a perfect alternative for people who don't love eggnog," says managing director and cocktail pro Heather Wibbels of Bourbon Women and The Cocktail Contessa. "There is a strong similarity in flavor and mouthfeel between Southern milk punch and eggnog because both are creamy, sweet, decadent and boozy."

In spite of the similarities, our sources generally agreed that milk punch is lighter, frothier, and more conducive to drinking outside of the holiday season. Martin insists that milk punch is a year-round brunch cocktail in New Orleans, so if you find that you don't want to abandon this tipple post-December, then you can keep it as a day-drinking staple throughout the year.

How Can You Make the Best NOLA Milk Punch at Home?

While milk punch isn't a complicated cocktail, a few key tips can help you make the best possible version. For instance, "be fearless in regards to using full-fat whole milk. I know [that] some recipes may call for a 'skinny' option, [but] using lowfat or skim milk takes away from the creamy and silkiness of the beverage. The lowfat options lend a watery texture and make the drink less satisfying," advises Thomas "Tommy the Bartender" Holbert, a Dallas, Texas-based bartender and beverage influencer.

When it comes to nailing the ingredient ratios, follow this formula recommended by lead bartender Brandon "BB" Verkaik of Maya in Charleston, S.C.: "Think three parts milk, two parts booze, one part sweet."

Don't hesitate to taste the cocktail as you build it, and make adjustments. "Achieving the right balance is key. You don't want it too sweet, too boozy, or too heavy. Use your palate and taste it as you go," managing partner Neal Bodenheimer of Cane and Table, Cure, and Peychaud's in New Orleans tells us.

Because New Orleans milk punch isn't strongly flavored, it can serve as a prime canvas for liqueurs and other flavor additions, according to Wibbels: "Add a seasonal flavor that melds well with the whiskey or spirit you plan to use. I love adding a touch of Rivulet pecan liqueur or amaretto to my NOLA milk punch, and in the summer, a touch of orange and/or peach can make delicious variations on a standard milk punch."

Like eggnog, New Orleans milk punch is an ideal drink for large groups, and Martin actually recommends against making this beverage to-order, instead promoting the idea of adapting it into a large-format cocktail. "The biggest mistake I see bartenders make is making milk punch to order. Although it goes against everything they've learned, mIlk punch is much better when it's batched. Pour [it] into a plastic milk jug and, as we say in New Orleans, let it maria-nate overnight!" she says.

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