The word “punch” used to bring to mind a pastel-hued liquid-filled bowl of a sticky-sweet quaff, possibly with a pile of rainbow sherbet bobbing in the middle.
“People just started mixing spirits and fruit juices to create a pleasant-tasting concoction often augmented with packaged products like Hawaiian punch or that ilk,” says Dale (King Cocktail) DeGroff, author of Craft of the Cocktail. “The college crowd took it a step farther with the garbage can punches, heavily alcoholic and guaranteed hangover bombs.”
But punch didn’t always have a bad rap. In the pre-Prohibition days of cocktail creativity, punch was the de rigueur drink, according to DeGroff, who can easily take credit for sparking a new era of properly made tipples. “Punch enjoyed a heyday, especially in the U.K. and Europe, in the mid to late 17th century through the end of the 18th century. The communal punch bowl was the equivalent of a cocktail party.” And so it is now.
Today, bars across the country are plunging into the bowl. Spots like New York’s Dead Rabbit, where co-owner and bartender Jack McGarry serves up his punches in antique China bowls and cups, and Apt-13 where DeGroff’s son, Leo, is carrying on the family talent by making punches like the Millennium. There’s the literary-minded watering hole Novela in San Francisco with its half-dozen punches, served by the glass, flight, or pitcher. And in Washington, D.C, at 2 Birds 1 Stone, bar manager Adam Bernbach offers a popular, weekly changing punch from his quirky hand-drawn menus.
“I think the communal aspect of punch is very inviting for many people,” says Bernbach, who likes to use wine and beer in the mix to both soften the punch and add a bit of spice, nuance and acid. “Like all mixed drinks,” he says, “the key is balance -- hitting the spot between strong and weak, sweet and sour.”
Indeed, there’s no better time than the holidays, when communal gatherings seem to happen every hour on the hour, to pull a party trick like punch. As a cocktail historian and adept punch-maker himself, Dave Wondrich notes in his aptly titled romp through punch’s heady history, Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl (Perigree), punch was often limited to special occasions and holidays.
Wondrich spent countless hours researching and recreating original recipes for his book -- no easy task in the culture of cocktails where, as he notes, things often were not written down and were lost to the ages (after, one must suppose, a few glasses too many).
If you want to harken back to the Fezziwig past, DeGroff suggests learning how to make a shrub for a base. It’s a combination of lemon oil from the skin of the citrus (be careful to avoid getting any bitter pith in the mix) with sugar, water and fresh lemon juice. Not only is it the base of a true punch, DeGroff says, the sugar acts as a preservative along with the addition of a small amount of alcohol.
Recipe: Colonial Christmas Punch
Recipe: Cascade Hollow Punch
Recipe: Colonial Christmas Punch
“One common way of extracting the oil from the citrus skins is to pound the sugar and the citrus rind (usually lemons but sometimes with the addition of orange or other citrus fruits as well) and letting the sugar wick out the oil over several hours. If the fruit is fresh with lots of oil in the skins, the result will be a kind of slurry as the oil liquefies the sugar,” DeGroff instructs.
Next, add the lemon juice and water, dissolve any remaining sugar and strain off the peels. Bottle it up and save it for your pre-made punch base.
“This shrub is then combined with a base spirit,” DeGroff says, “and usually another smaller amount of fortified wine or liqueur for flavor, and then water.”
Rum, whiskey or gin-based punches are good, with port, sherry or brandy in a supporting ingredient role.
But go easy on the addition of the booze, DeGroff cautions. After all, punch is meant for prolific ladling – and is a great way to kick off pre-dinner hors d’oeuvres.
“Punch is not intended to be too heavily alcoholic,” he says, “since we liberally partake of the bowl!”