The Jerry Thomas Experiment: The Lemon-Fresh Hot Mess

Every week, we tackle the weirdest recipe we can find in Jerry Thomas’s “Bartenders Guide.” Turns out they did things differently back then.


Today we take on recipe #189, a tipple Jerry Thomas dubs “Italian Lemonade.” We were thrown right from the title. The main spirit in this punch is Sherry, which comes from Spain. We weren’t sure if this was a case of Jerry not knowing his geography, or a clever 19th century joke we weren’t equipped to get.

All we knew was that spiked lemonade seemed the perfect complement to a sultry white-denim July afternoon. Until we got to the part where the recipe asks for a quart of boiling milk. 

Fortunately, lemon juice and hot milk sounded like just the kind of disaster we like here at the Jerry Thomas Experiment.

First we were instructed to “pare and press two dozen lemons; pour the juice on the lemons, and let it remain on them all night.” By dawn, we could detect no magical transformation, but we assume that some sort of supernatural lemon apotheosis had occurred. A quick taste confirmed it. Best. Day old. Room temperature. Lemon juice. Ever.

Next, we added two pounds of sugar to the peels and juice of the lemons. Jerry says to also add your sherry and boiling water at this point, but we let the sugar work its oleo saccharum magic for an hour or so.

Once we had a sludgy syrup going, we worked in three quarts of boiling water to the syrup, dissolving any remaining sugar, then added “a quart of good sherry.” We selected East India Sherry (a favorite among the Supercall staff) with its plummy reek, tobacco notes and sharply acid tongue, thinking it would pair well with the tartness of the lemons. Once mixed, the lemonade tasted like the best hard Arnold Palmer we never had. It was so good, in fact, we hesitated to take the next step. But Jerry Thomas called for hot milk — and Jerry Thomas must be obeyed.

As the warm, thick aroma of our boiling quart of milk spread through the hot summertime office, our co-workers were heard to curse our names. Fie upon them, we thought. Would you prefer we went back to fish bladders? When it began to bubble, we crossed our fingers, put on our best wince faces and poured steaming cow juice into our precious punch.

What followed was instant alchemical insanity. The acid in the lemon juice caused the milk to curdle. Coagulated solids rose to the surface of the liquid as the liquid whey fell to the bottom. The result looked like the aftermath of Schnapps And Tacos Tuesday at the frat house.

Many will recognize this as the same chemical reaction used to make soft cheeses such as Ricotta, Queso Fresco or Paneer. The difference was we were doing it in reverse — Jerry Thomas wasn’t after cheese, he wanted the whey, i.e. the stuff companies use to make bodybuilder protein powder. (Did Jerry Thomas even lift, bro?)

Our last step was to “strain through a jelly bag until clear.” This seemed a fool’s errand, given the soggy clumps that had formed atop our trusty tub. Traditionally used to strain seeds and other unwanted solids from jelly, a jelly bag is basically an industrial strength canvas cheesecloth on a metal stand. We poured in our strange decoction and gave it a good squeeze. Like a giant udder that dispenses lemon-whey punch, our jelly bag separated the elixir, leaving the interior of the bag caked in gooey yellow sludge.

Intellectually we knew the punch was safe to drink, but seeing several pounds of alien goop extrude itself from something you’re about to put in your body is enough to freak anyone out. Despite our trepidation, we poured off a cupful and gave it an experimental sip. And we are here to tell you something important. Lemonade-whey punch is goddamn delicious.

But there was more: As our mixture extruded into the tub, it frothed as it fell. A light bulb went on. Milk-washed spirits can form a froth when shaken, similar to egg whites. We immediately bunged some of it in a shaker to see what would happen.
Magic. Magic is what happened.

The milk lent a buttered popcorn taste to the punch, rounding out the astringency of the lemonade delightfully. Once chilled, the finished product tasted like the love child of a summertime cooler and a cup of Earl Grey with milk.

Served up in a chilled coupe with dots of bitters on its foam, our milky sherry lemonade tasted like the low-ABV cousin of a Pisco Sour.

Our second recipe was in the bag, and so was a snack to go with it. After pressing as much moisture as possible out of the cheese curds, we set a heavy pot on top of the jelly bag for an hour. When we returned, we found a beautiful little cake of farmer’s cheese — a fantastic complement to a most unusual beverage.