For many, the thought of punch may conjure up images of ginger ale-and-lime-sherbet-laced church lady delights (per- haps with champagne, depending on your denomination) or, much worse, that frat party favorite spiked with Everclear and served in a trash receptacle. Punch, however, is a classic drink with almost ancient roots. And after decades in fellowship hall obscurity, it’s back on the upswing.
The history of punch is tied with the expansion of the British Empire and dates back at least to the middle 17th century. Its roots can be traced from the ports of India to the rum-producing colonies of the West Indies. The word is thought to be derived from the hindustani word panch, meaning “five,” and referring to the five main ingredients in traditional punch: sug- ar, water, spice or tea, citrus and spirits.
In colonial America, punch was the drink of choice. The democratic nature of the drink befitted the egalitarian ideals of the new nation: all men were created equal around the punch bowl. The estate inventories of some 18th-century tavern owners reveal that in some locales there were many punch bowls and few cups, meaning that everybody drank from the same vessel. “Before the melting pot, America had the punch bowl,” Wayne Curtis writes in And a Bottle of Rum, a history of the cane spirit. Although I am not close to advocating that we all sip from the same bowl, there is something endearing about the idea of the neighborly-shared drink – it is a thing rooted in the pre-modern past, when life was organized differently. As the United States emerged as an industrial power, our taste in beverages changed. The communal experience of the leisurely punch was replaced by newfangled innovations such as the individual cocktail.
With the cocktail “renaissance” of the last few years, classically inspired punch is finally making something of a come- back. Modern interpretations of traditional punch are perfect for the long warm nights of late spring and early summer in Austin. The weather is gorgeous and the excuses for celebrating seem virtually innumerable. The active partygoer – or party thrower – is always in need of something to mix up heading for the boat, the beach or the patio. Punch is simple to make, relatively inexpensive to put together and the perfect solution to serving groups of all sizes.
Although punch can feature any number of spirits as its base, it is most widely thought of as a rum drink, at least on these shores. Rum is available in countless styles. Use a light silver rum to show off fresh fruit flavors, or experiment with layering different styles of rums for added complexity. Lime juice is the most common citrus component in punch, but lemon or grapefruit juice also works, as does pineapple. Tea was a popular spice ingredient in early punches, but bitters or a spiced syrup such as cinnamon or star anise may also be used. Water is an essential ingredient to cocktails and comes from the ice used to chill the drink. When making punches and other batched drinks that are going to sit out over time instead of being consumed all at once, it is important to use large chunks of ice that will melt slowly. Make ice blocks using tupperware rings or silicone molds, the bigger the better. Get creative by freezing melon balls or chunks of fresh fruit into the molds.
Note: these recipes can be multiplied to serve any size group. When doing so, be sure to taste as you go, to make sure the recipes stay balanced as you multiply. As with cooking and baking, not all ingredients multiply equally. Hold back on sweet and tart ingredients when you multiply – you can always add more if you need to, but you cannot take away.
>11⁄2 cups Pepe Zevada PlataTequila
>3⁄4 cup St-Germain Elderflower liqueur
>11⁄2 cup pineapple juice
>1⁄2 cup fresh-squeezed lime juice
> 1⁄4-1⁄2 cup cinnamon syrup, to taste
Combine ingredients in a punch bowl or pitcher and stir to combine. Chill with large blocks of ice – use a Tupperware mold, or even a clean paper milk carton – fill with water and freeze, then tear away carton to reveal ice block. For the cinnamon syrup, combine equal parts of sugar and water in a sauce pan and simmer with cinnamon sticks. Don’t be stingy on the cinnamon sticks, and crack them open to release more flavor. Taste periodically and remove from heat when syrup has rich but not overbearing cinnamon flavor.
Tiki Masala Punch
(Adapted from Bill Norris’ Watermelon Tiki Masala cocktail)
>11⁄2 cup silver rum, such as Flor de Caña 4yr Extra Dry
>1⁄2 cup aged rum, such as Bacardi 8
>11⁄2 cup fresh watermelon juice
>1⁄2 cup fresh-squeezed lime juice
> 1⁄4-1⁄2 cup star anise syrup, to taste
Combine ingredients in a punch bowl or pitcher and stir to chill. For the ice ring, fill a Tupperware-style mold with water and balls of watermelon and honeydew. Garnish the punch with floating whole star anise. For the star anise syrup, combine equal parts of sugar and water in a sauce pan and simmer with whole star anise. Gently crack them open to release more flavor – and use the broken pieces, while reserving the whole stars for garnish. Taste periodically and remove from heat when syrup has subtle star anise flavor.
While not a punch, the St-Germain Cocktail is a great drink to serve for group entertaining. It is easy to make and a sure crowd pleaser. St-Germain is an elegant, sophisticated liqueur that can improve many of your favorite cocktails.
> 11⁄2 cups St-Germain Elderflower liqueur
> 2 cups champagne or sparkling wine, chilled
> 2 cups club soda
Combine ingredients in a pitcher and fill with large chunks of cracked ice.