Perhaps your last encounter with a bowl of punch involved peppermint schnapps, a Texas mickey of Sauza Silver and a frat-house bartender aptly nicknamed Spike. Don't remember? Of course not; you're still recuperating. On the other hand, it may have been a lame church-social concoction big on apple juice, lemon verbena and nothing so strong as to suggest contact with the inside of a still.
Thankfully, punch – the communal drink dispensed from bowls – has been reclaiming its 18th-century pride. Exacting watering holes, such as the Aviary in Chicago, the Dead Rabbit in Manhattan and BarChef in Toronto, have been dusting off old recipes and crafting their own new signature potations.
"Punches are cool because you can throw some juice in there, some brandy, a little bit of maple syrup and bitters, then a slice of apple and some rosemary and freshly ground cinnamon, some ice, a ladle and there you go," says Frankie Solarik, BarChef's coowner and one of North America's most celebrated mixologists. "I just made that up."
Easy for him to do. There are easier routes, such as the new heat-and-serve Winter Jack Apple Whiskey Punch, a 15-per-cent-alcohol, impressively balanced brand extension of Jack Daniel's whisky, spiced with cinnamon and clove (which you can zap in the microwave). For my humble part this holiday season, I intend to take a stab at either a tried-and-true classic recipe, the excellent Hendrick's Hot Gin Punch (www.hendricksgin.com), or one of Ashley Denton's appetizer-friendly creations that accompany this piece. Because when you've got (good) punch, you've got a party.
"It becomes very jolly because people tend to cluster around the punch bowl," says David Wondrich, author of the fascinating and hilarious book Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl, published in 2010. "I always serve it in small cups. So, when your cup's empty, you have to go back to the bowl, and there you'll meet somebody else. It keeps the party in a state of Brownian motion, so to speak."
A cocktail writer for Esquire magazine, Wondrich says he not only mixes up creations for house parties but takes them on the road, sometimes in threegallon water jugs or a giant two-gallon hip flask he procured in London. "I'll make it at events. I'll bring it to people's houses and barbecues and whatever. I'm like Johnny Punchseed."
Wondrich's book and the rise of punch-bowl service in fancy bars mark a natural extension of modern mixology's current fascination with pre-Prohibition drinks. Before man invented the cocktail, there was punch, the popular mixed-drink of Dickensian England. Whether cold or hot, it gave rugged liquor a distingué existence beyond the blunt shot glass.
Wondrich pegs the golden era at roughly 1700 to 1830, during which punch was closely associated with British sailors. Beer and wine were prone to souring on long sea voyages, so those drinks took up precious cargo space. Not so distilled spirits, whose characteristically raw 18th-century profile would have benefited from a few squirts of scurvy-fighting citrus juice (and anything else seafaring Brits might have tossed in, including herring).
And there you have two of the five pillars of punchology: alcohol, acidity, spice, sugar and water (or tea or any other non-alcoholic liquid). You can give or take one element, Wondrich says. Just leave me off your invitation list should you plan to dispense with No. 1.
For the record, Wondrich rejects the popular (as far as such things can be) theory that punch is Indian in origin. Nor does he buy the story that its name derives from the Hindustani for "five" (panch). "If you trace it back, you find that there was one English traveller to India in the 1680s who made that observation. He made it based on analogy [between five ingredients and the number "five"]. But there's no evidence it was an Indian drink."
In addition to including a treasure trove of authentic early recipes – such as the excellent Canadian Punch (rye whisky, rum, lemons, pineapple slices, water and ice) and the spectacularly flambéed Charles Dickens's Punch (brandy, rum, lemons, sugar and boiling water) – Wondrich offers a handy section on basic ingredients and assembly so that readers can "roll their own."
His preferred formula: one of sour, one of sweet, four of strong and six of weak. "That works best for me," Wondrich says. "Sometimes it's five of weak. It depends how strong the spirit is." Also, he notes that the "weak" component generally comprises both ice and water (or tea or club soda or what have you).
With punch as with the polar ice caps, melt water is a big deal. Many bartenders generally prefer one large, slow-melting cube, which can be moulded in an empty yogurt or cottage-cheese container (my go-to vessels). "Whenever I'm going to entertain, I make a massive punch," says Cooper Tardivel, head bartender at Hawksworth Restaurant in Vancouver, who moulds a giant iceberg in the bottom of a stock pot to keep the punch cold. "At the beginning of the night, [the punch] will taste different from the rest of the night. But depending on the punch, you can constantly rebalance by adding spirits, citrus, whatever, to balance off the dilution rate."
That fine tuning in essence creates its own party organism, sort of like a sourdough starter, one that can be preserved beyond the evening and replenished another day should you choose to bottle and refrigerate the leftovers. "My mom will have a punch on the go now that will last till New Year's Day," Tardivel says.
David Wondrich's top tips for a cracking-good help-yourselves punch party
Keep the serving cups small. Tiny cups have a natural way of limiting consumption to a responsible rate (not that punch should ever be as strong as a cocktail) and draws people back to the bowl for that social circulation.
Self-service is entirely in keeping with the tradition and appropriate for your party so long as the crowd is not so big that you need be concerned about unfamiliar or otherwise questionable guests abusing the privilege.
Hot punches can be kept warm in a crock pot or, for a small group, fondue pot.
When assembling a hot punch, use only the peel of a lemon, not the juice. Heat exacerbates the latter's acidity and can make for an unpleasant brew.
Go light on sweet liqueurs should you deploy them at all. Things will get tediously cloying very quickly.
Take it easy with the New Age herbal infusions. There's only so much chamomile or lavender a person can take.
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The Flavour Principle, a new cookbook and drinks compendium by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol, is in bookstores everywhere. Published by Harper Collins.