A proper punch
Make your garden party non-garden-variety
Summer seems to never stay for long enough, and this means all the barbequing and back yard entertaining I can squeeze into my busy schedule. I know I happen to also do this for a living, but when I have guests over, the last thing I want to be doing is mixing and stirring drinks, when I could be socializing and enjoying myself like everyone else. This, my dear readers, is why I worship the flowing bowl, also known as punch.
It is important to note that there are a lot of different ideas out there as to what “punch’ is. But for a moment, let us talk about what punch is not. It is not something to be found in a bucket or trash can in a fraternity house basement. It does not have rainbow sherbet in it, nor does it consist of whatever random handles of booze and sodas you have lying around. Punch is not for the novice to improvise, as cocktail historian David Wondrich recounts: “I remember, dimly, one summer afternoon making the famous Philadelphia Fish-House Punch for the first time and leaving in the copious amounts of rum and brandy but omitting most of the water. Fortunately, it was at a house party out in the country, and nobody had to drive.”
Punch dates back to the 1600s and, like most classics in history, cannot seemingly be traced back to a single inventor or location. Punch should consist of spirits, citrus, sugar, spice, water, and ice for dilution. Similar to the history of the daiquiri (see March-April 2018’s issue), the closest thing to punch came from sailors. The Dutch East India Company’s first fleet stocked the equivalent of seven bottles of liquor per person, and at the time, that liquor did not always taste so great. First accounts show water being added to the liquor, and eventually to treat scurvy, citrus came next, and, by the eighteenth century sugar was included in the recipe for what was referred to as “aqua vitae.” Given the definition we are using, this is arguably more than halfway to punch.
In the eighteenth century in England a different account of aqua vitae is given by a schoolboy using much more complex ingredients. Here, punch came out of necessity to avoid waste. Saltwater-damaged wines, cider dregs, and damaged sugars, among other ingredients, were added to the watered-down-spirit grog and then cheaply spiced with aniseed or juniper and hawked in the streets for bulk. Punch is actually a great way for bars and the at-home bartender to prevent waste, and most likely the reason for the revived popularity of punch. That, and it can be delicious.
Now that we know what punch is and where it came from, it is time to get down to the good stuff—what we are drinking! As someone who is not a novice punch-maker, I do like to improvise. And because practice makes perfect, the easiest way to get to know punch is to start with the classic recipes. Besides the Philadelphia Fish-House Punch, Milk Punch is probably the most revisited classic and was written by a woman. Mary Rockett’s recipe is one that requires careful planning, as it is not an on-the-spot punch; in fact, most eighteenth centurions preferred to prepare milk punch in bulk without the milk solids, as it will preserve, versus repeating the time-consuming process over and over. This recipe is also the earliest form of milk washing as it adds boiling milk and sugar to brandy and then citrus to curdle it. It is then fine-strained into a clear drink of its own. By the time the first bartenders’ guide was published in 1862, Jerry Thomas’s recipe
for English milk punch contained brandy plus rum and arrack, lemons and pineapples, green tea, cloves, coriander, and cinnamon. Many of today’s bartenders use this recipe as their starting point.
The depth of, and types of, punches that exist are enough that multiple books have been written on them. Punch is not always on offer at my bar, but we are happy to make an on- the-spot version, or chat about milk punch and infusions and clarification any time. And, while punch recipes are quite specific, if you feel confident enough, swap out a base spirit or add some mint or thyme from your garden. Take your favorite cocktail and make it in a punch bowl (but don’t forget to add the water!) Punch is meant to be the life of the party, and there are hundreds of recipes beyond these to explore for your next garden fête or barbeque. And as always, have fun with it!