You were naughty this year and I’m going to punch you right in the mouth! Not literally of course, but you might just choose to put some punch in your mouth this holiday season after reading this post.
Punch is an age-old tradition and one my experience tells me we’ve nearly lost with our contemporary desire for designer cocktails. And when I say punch I don’t mean that stuff we used to mix up in the big trash can in the basement of my fraternity house with every skanky bottle of liquor laying around, fruit punch mix and ice. Yuck! I mean real punch based on five simple ingredients that harkens back to 17th century and Navy-men sailing the seas with cargo holds full of rum.
The five basic ingredients of punch:
Starting with those ingredients as a guide the directions one can go in are vast, and trust me people have gone in all of them!
There is no way I can run down the variations of each of those ingredients in historical detail, but I know somebody who can. David Wondrich, a very well known cocktail historian and imbibing expert. His book Punch: The Delights (And Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl has all the historical details, a breakdown of the ingredients, finishing with recipes for a great many variations of punch. You can also find Wondrich’s imbibing wisdom in Esquire Magazine and several other books on both music and drinking.
Punch is also social tipple by nature. Have you ever wondered why the cups that come with punch bowl sets are so small? That’s because the small servings were meant to bring people back to the punch bowl for another pour and some good conversation. What better time of the year to channel that sensibility than during the Christmas and New Year holidays?
What I am going to do is take a couple different recipes for a test drive to experience them for myself and pick one to serve at my upcoming holiday open house.
The first one I selected is The Fatal Bowl which was published in Esquire Magazine in December 2007 just into time for Christmas that year.
This take on punch uses brewed black tea which was quite common during the heyday of punch.
The Fatal Bowl
1 cup demerara sugar
4 tea bags
1 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice, strained
2 1/2 cups cognac
1 1/2 cups dark rum
The instructions for this recipe start off with direction to prepare your ice for your punch bowl, by freezing a large bowl of water, ahead of time. This step shouldn’t be skipped and assuming you can substitute ice cubes instead will produce an undesirable result, watered down punch. I plan to use several large plastic bowls to prepare blocks of ice a day ahead of time.
Using a vegetable peeler thinly peel the lemons avoiding as much of the pith as possible. Reserve the lemons. Place the peels in a large heat-proof bowl. Add the sugar and muddle the sugar and lemons together to release the lemon oils and blend them with the sugar.
Boil one quart of water and use it to steep the tea bags for five minutes. Remove the tea bags and pour the tea over the lemon peels and sugar. Stir to dissolve the sugar.
Add lemon juice, cognac and rum. Stir well to mix. Place in the refrigerator to cool for a couple of hours.
( That's what it looked like before putting it in the fridge. )
To serve your punch, assemble your block ice in your punch bowl, pour over the punch and grate the nutmeg on the top. Allow guests to dish their punch into small glasses with a punch ladle. Hang out near the punch bowl for all the holiday gossip.
To take this recipe for a test drive I cut all the ingredients down to ¼ of the full recipe. This will net somewhere around twenty ounces of finished punch, enough to sample and share before we commit to the whole hog.
The tea makes this drink for me. The complexity of each sip goes way beyond many modern day cocktails and the sweetness is firmly in check with the sour. The more I go back in time and try drinks of the days past the more I realize how much knowledge is rolled into the simplicity of many of them.
In cocktail terms I would liken this drink to a less sweet mashup of a Manhattan and a Side Car.
“Is there alcohol in this?” was Margot’s initial response. She also said that this is what she always thought scotch should taste like. The naked edge of a spirit like scotch is no match for the smooth, sweetness of this drink.
My second pilot punch comes from the Wondrich’s book Punch and is simply called Canadian Punch.
4 750ml bottles rye whiskey (19th century Canadian whiskey was rye based)
1 pint Jamaican rum
8 lemons, sliced
1 pineapple, sliced
3 ½ quarts of water
1 ½ cups white sugar, additional to taste
Don’t forget to prepare your ice. See above.
In a large container place the sliced lemon & pineapple with the whiskey and rum. Allow to infuse for six hours. Don’t squeeze the lemons or pineapple.
Dissolve the sugar in three quarts of the water. You can heat the water slightly to ease this process, but allow it to cool if you do.
Combine the spirits & fruit with the sugar water, remaining water and refrigerate for several hours.
Serve in a punch bowl, fruit and all, with block ice.
You’ll notice there is no added spice in this recipe. The spice compliment should come from the rye whiskey, a key difference between rye and some other forms of whiskey. I also altered the recipe presented here to incorporate the information in a note from the book about additional citrus and increasing the amount of rye when using standard proof alcohol. If you have cask strength rye you will want to decrease by one bottle of whiskey and substitute three cups of water in its place.
This is a pretty big recipe so I cut it down by 1/8th for a pilot batch. That still makes about one quart of punch to test drive. This is very difficult work!
This drink can’t hide the alcohol and that makes it less universal to me. It tastes pretty good, but is unbalanced and comes on too strong. Margot took one sip and passed it back to me. I don’t feel the influence of the citrus and fruit comes across well at all. Squeezing the lemons into the punch liquid and chopping up the pineapple right before serving might be a worthy procedural change here.
I’m also going to try an add some spiced simple syrup to what I have left over and see if that takes the edge of it and brings it back to a more enjoyable place. (Post publishing note: pineapple juice and the spiced syrup to taste after a good mix. It taste tropical!)
The winner was the The Fatal Bowl, and that was even before we tasted the Canadian Punch. It really is that good. I was worried that these drinks would both channel the spirits too much, like the Canadian Punch, and that Margot’s perception of them would worry me about serving them to a wide range of drinkers. With that fear set aside I sure hope a little history and some socializing around the punch bowl resonates with my friends on Saturday. If not, there will be plenty of punch for Margot and me to drink while we clean up from the holiday whirlwind!