unch is a drink of celebration. Its very presentation brings people close: Guests gather around the sacred pool of the punch bowl, extend their cups and – assuming you’ve mixed it well – plead Dickensianly for more.
Punch is for people you want to spend time with. If you’re trying to avoid your family this holiday, don’t make punch! You’ll have no excuse to escape while they unwrap the cheese ball and talk about your aunt’s bursitis. If you want to dodge your guests, make cocktails, which require rising above the hullabaloo enough to focus on ingredients, measurements and not zesting your knuckle into someone’s martini.
But if you want to hang out, chill out, converse, “accidentally” end up under some mistletoe? Set out a bowl of punch. You’ll have a chance to get down.
Lest you think I’ve been bought by Washington’s insidious punch lobby, let me be clear: My first encounter with punch was not entirely auspicious. Having traveled from the cloistered confines of our women’s college in Virginia, my friends and I went to the homecoming game at nearby Hampden-Sydney, a college as turgid with cooped-up male hormones as Hollins was ripe with female ones. At some point, we found ourselves in the basement of a frat house so crowded that when we tried to jump along with “Come On Eileen,” we got stuck, too tightly packed to do more than grunt for air. The only space was around an enormous mutton-chopped dude tending a Hefty-bag-lined trash can full of liquid primarily composed, judging from the bottles and packets on the floor, of Everclear and grape Kool-Aid. Now and then he would stir it with a spatula, lick the spatula, and roar, “More purple!”
“That’s what we’re up against with punch,” author David Wondrich acknowledges when I relate this story. “What I like about real punch is it still has a germ of that in it. If you overdo it, things will get crazy – but at the same time it’s possible to just drink it in a civilized manner like wine.”
Punch’s resurgence owes a lot to Wondrich, who followed up his award-winning “Imbibe!” with the copiously researched and occasionally hilarious “Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl.” Punch “was unquestionably the first popular mixed drink based on spirits,” he says. “It was the introduction of spirits into polite drinking society – although sometimes it was pretty impolite.”
Little wonder: Wondrich’s research indicates the drink most likely came ashore with English and Dutch sailors returning from their exploits in various colonies around the early 1600s. There’s a whiff of piracy in punch, and the citrus that’s key in so many classic recipes probably was originally a means of warding off scurvy.
That was back in the early days of distilling, and many of the refined, delicious spirits we now enjoy were coarse, proto-versions of their current selves: nasty, heavy-metal-laden, badly filtered. The addition of sugar and citrus to make punch not only made spirits palatable, Wondrich says, “it made something delicious.”
Dan Searing, a partner at Room 11 in D.C. and author of “The Punch Bowl: 75 Recipes Spanning Four Centuries of Wanton Revelry,” says he loves the conviviality of punch, which “was very much a part of drinking life in the 18th century and before. But as Wondrich notes, as technology and lifestyles changed, people started to gravitate toward single-serving experiences.” A return to that collective feeling, Searing says, is part of the reason behind the motto for his Punch Club pop-up, held in the Warehouse/Passenger space during winter 2009 and later at Room 11: It was “Gaudium Omnibus,” Latin for “Joy to All.”
There are old rules governing the ratio of citrus to sugar to water to booze, but everyone seems to have followed a different set of them. Just keep in mind that balance and dilution are key. Made by the old tenets, Wondrich says, a punch should have about the alcohol content of sherry: roughly 16 to 22 percent. Common mistakes? Too much spice. “People see that word, ‘spice,’ and it gets their inner mixologist going, and they’re, like, ‘I can infuse my gin with chamomile, and blah blah blah.’ And that’s fine for a cocktail. You’ve got your six to eight sips, and it’s gone. But with punch, you’re supposed to drink that all night, and it gets very tiresome.”
That said, both Searing and Gina Chersevani of Hank’s on the Hill and Buffalo & Bergen in D.C. say they like punch’s flexibility.
“It’s the ever-flowing bowl,” Chersevani says. “The party isn’t over till the punch bowl is empty, and if you’re almost empty, you can always add an ingredient to keep it going. … It can evolve over the course of the evening as you change the flavors.”
Says Searing: “People compare making cocktails to baking, in the sense that it requires relatively precise measure of ingredients, whereas making a punch can be more like how we think of cooking. It’s easier to fine-tune.”
Legare Street Punch, an 1890 recipe collected in Searing’s book, is quick but luxurious, shimmering with champagne, cognac and Sauternes (perfect for the procrastinator who still wants to spoil guests). Chersevani’s crimson concoction requires more prep – you brew a spiced cranberry syrup in advance of the final punchmaking – but employs gin beautifully: “If you use juniper right, you can mimic Christmas,” she says.
As you gather around the punch bowl, think of Robert Burns, the punch-loving Scottish poet who composed our most-sung New Year’s toasting tune. There’s a good chance that the “cup of kindness” in “Auld Lang Syne” was a cup of punch. And when you’re done with the singing, at midnight, raise a glass. Gaudium Omnibus in 2014, everyone, and remember: More purple!