Hiding inside kitchen cabinets across the country, next to dusty bread machines, past broken rice cookers and behind retired George Foreman Grills languishes one of the most powerful bartending tools ever invented: the punch bowl. Yes, I’m talking about that dust-collecting punch bowl your grandmother gave you years ago and you didn’t have the heart to throw out.
It might sound crazy, given that for decades punch was regulated to middle-school dances and retirement home, but from the late 1660s through the 1800s the alcoholic version was truly a drinks sensation enjoyed in both England and the New World alike. Just how popular? Let’s just say if you weren’t enjoying wine or beer you were probably having a glass of punch.
And thanks to David Wondrich’s award-winning book, Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl top craft bartenders from New York to Chicago to San Francisco have rediscovered the joys of making and serving the concoction.
In my house, Memorial Day weekend kicks off the start of punch season, which lasts all the way through the end of summer. Why? It’s easy to make, serves a crowd and is a refreshing drink you can enjoy all afternoon long. Typically, a glass of punch is about as potent as a glass of wine. “It lets you pace yourself,” says Wondrich. “It’s a session drink.”
To get you started we got Wondrich to give us his advice and tips for fixing the perfect punch for a Memorial Day get together.
The key step to fixing a delicious punch actually takes place the day before your guests arrive. Peel four lemons being sure to make beautiful long spirals. “It takes a little practice,” admits Wondrich, who likes to use a wide vegetable peeler to do the job.
Add the peels to a mason jar full of 6 ounces of sugar. And let it sit overnight in a warm place. The sugar will absorb the oils from the peels and the peels will become candied.
To chill your punch you’re going to need a giant ice cube. 24 hours before your party, fill a quart-size container with water and stick it in the freeze.
Take your sugar and lemon peel mix (what Wondrich calls oleo saccharum) and add 6 ounces of fresh lemon juice. Seal the jar and “shake the hell out of it,” he advises. “That dissolves the sugar.” Strain out the peels and keep them to be used later as a garnish. What you’ve created is a shrub, which will be the base of the punch. (You can keep it in the fridge for up to a week.)
Wondrich’s basic recipe calls for one 750 mL bottle of liquor. He suggests using dark rums, cognacs and whiskies produced in a traditional pot still, since it “makes a richer punch.” A light highland Scotch, like The Glenlivet, is a good choice as are the Irish whiskies Redbreast and Green Spot. Gin is also a tasty and popular punch base.
But you don’t need to just stick to one type of liquor. “Rum and cognac are friends for life and are always a great combination,” says Wondrich. (He likes to mix one part rum with two parts cognac.) Scotch and rye in equal parts also makes a delicious and historic punch.
To round out your punch and give it a softer flavor--and some spice--you can also add 2 ounces of your favorite liqueur.
Wondrich frequently uses curacao but St-Germain, Maraschino and Bénédictine also work well.
What makes punch so drinkable (and low proof) is that you add a quart of cold water to the mix. You can give it a bit of effervescence by substituting in sparkling water, which is the perfect partner for gin.
For special occasions, you can even use sparkling wine instead of the water. “That’s the most dangerous punch,” jokes Wondrich, since it’s so easy to drink.
Some bartenders replace the water with cold tea. If you’re going to go that route, Wondrich suggests using a decaf tea and to find one whose flavor isn’t over powering. “You don’t want to go too botanical,” he says, since you run the risk of people getting tired of the drink.
It’s pretty simple: Just add the shrub, the liquor, the water and your giant ice block to a punch bowl or large pitcher. Garnish it with the lemon peels and grate some fresh nutmeg on top. Then just sit back and let your guests serve themselves.