By Larry Sterner
For the children of the 1950s and 1960s, the idea of a party drink known as “punch” conjures visions of a large cut-glass bowl with matching cups hanging off of the circumference. Inside, a colorful swamp of fizzy liquid swirled around floating orange wheels and an iceberg of lime “sherbert,” as we pronounced it back then. It was the pinnacle of suburban party sophistication—and if it was not made with alcohol it would likely be “spiked” surreptitiously in order to promote conviviality.
The name “punch” originates from the Sanskrit word “panch,” meaning “five.” That hints at the traditional components of punch: strong, weak, sweet, sour, and heat (or, in modern parlance: alcohol, water, sugar, citrus, and spice).
As the Sanskrit would suggest, the history of punch is especially linked to India, where sailors for the British East India Company are said to have first encountered the drink in the early 17th century. Back in those days, sailors were provided with a daily ration of 10 pints, though beer had a tendency to spoil in the tropical heat. They turned, then, to the ingredients they could find locally, including arrack or rum. The addition of local fruit and spices, including nutmeg and mace, was the next step towards establishing punch’s flavor profile.
Eventually, punch found its way back to Europe and the North American colonies, where it was favored by the intellectual set, and frequently served in popular punch bars. By the 19th century, punch was seen as old hat and broadly fell out of favor, except for the above-mentioned technicolor versions of the late 20th century.
More recently, the drink’s stock has risen once again, thanks to mustachioed mixologists. Now, a number of the world’s top cocktail bars have fully embraced punch, from New York’s Death & Company to London’s Hawksmoor.
Indeed, mixed drinks made in large quantities, presented in bowls, and shared socially were the earliest versions of cocktails. And that’s what happens at Death & Co, which has three different varieties: Fish House Punch (peach brandy, Cognac, and rum); Kill-Devil Punch (pineapple juice, rum, and champagne); and Mothers Ruin Punch (gin, tea-infused vermouth, citrus juices, and champagne).
At Hawksmoor in London, General Manager Nick Strangeway has offered punch service since opening two years ago, because, as he states, “it is a way to serve skillfully mixed drinks to large groups of people instead of resorting to ‘mundane’ bottle service.” Strangeway goes on to say he also likes the sense of drama the presentation creates, with the beautiful bowls and garnishes. The Hawksmoor serves six different punches by the bowl for two to ten people. Here in Philly, classic and inventive punches by the glass and/or bowl can be found at Oyster House, The Franklin, The Olde Bar, Tiki and Sampan, among others.
So today, everything old is new again and the ritual of drinking from the traditional punch bowl is once again on the rise. After all, who could object to a large-batch drink meant to be enjoyed with friends?
Here are a few recipes for punches taken from some excellent bars and bartenders throughout the country. These recipes are for roughly a dozen servings but you can easily scale them down to yield two drinks.
Hibiscus Ginger Punch
From the Kitchn
4½ cups water
1 cup dried hibiscus blossoms (can be found online at nuts.com)
2-inch piece of ginger, thinly sliced
1 cup sugar
4 cups chilled ginger ale
2 750-mL bottles chilled champagne, sparkling white wine, or sparkling mineral water
Optional: ice, garnishes of mint, lemon or lime slices
Combine water, hibiscus blossoms, and ginger in a pot. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Turn off heat and stir in sugar. Let cool, strain, and chill. (If you like, save some of the plumped-up hibiscus blossoms for garnish.) To make punch, stir hibiscus juice with ginger ale and champagne or mineral water. Garnish if desired and serve immediately.
Gold Coast Punch
From Imbibe Magazine
8 ounces aged rum
3 ounces pineapple juice
3 ounces fresh lime juice
2 ounces simple syrup (1:1 sugar & water)
2 ounces allspice syrup (see below)
750 ml bottle Sparkling wine
Tools: shaker, strainer, punch bowl, ladle
Garnish: lime wheels, edible orchids and long straws (optional)
In batches, shake all ingredients with ice cubes, except sparkling wine, and pour over an ice block into a punch bowl. Top with sparkling wine and garnish. Serve by ladling into punch glasses, or simply serve with a few long straws out of a big bowl.
For the Allspice Syrup: Simmer one quart of simple syrup with 4 ounces of freshly ground allspice over medium heat for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let steep for another 10 minutes. Strain through a double layer of cheesecloth to remove loose spice into a clean glass jar. Keep refrigerated and use within one month.
Fish House Punch
1 cup sugar
3½ cups water
1½ cups fresh lemon juice (6 to 8 lemons), strained
750-ml bottle Jamaican amber rum
12 ounces Cognac (1½ cups)
2 ounces peach brandy (1/4 cup)
Garnish: lemon slices
Special equipment: a 1/2-gallon cardboard juice or milk carton, top (spout) end cut off
To make ice block, fill carton with water and freeze until solid, about 8 hours (see cooks’ note, below). Stir together sugar and 3½ cups water in a large bowl or pot until sugar is dissolved. Add lemon juice, rum, Cognac, and brandy and chill, covered, at least 3 hours. Put ice block in a punch bowl and pour punch over it.
Cooks’ notes: For a clearer ice block, boil water first, then cool to room temperature.
Punch can be chilled up to 6 hours before adding ice.
Read other Spring 2017 Newsletter articles