PUNCH’S CREATIVE REVIVAL
by David Lincoln Ross
Rowdy libation it may be when consumed to excess, as famed illustrator William Hogarth depicts Punch’s potent effects in this evocative 18th century engraving, today classic Punch recipes are being creatively re-interpreted by today’s cocktailians, mixologists and talented DIY bartenders.
Punch these days is adding much zest and vigor to bars, restaurants and hotels. Although a well-known libation to geeky cocktailians and drinks historians as an especially sociable concoction, with some recipes dating back to the 1600s, its renaissance today is definitely punching up profits in a way almost un-imaginable a few short years ago.
When professional mixologists discuss Punch, they are certainly not talking about the impromptu, neon-colored liquid monstrosities college sophomores have been known to throw together for a dorm or frat party. An authentic Punch is as much a studied ritual in the making, serious bartenders say, as it is in its pleasurable partaking by their customers. (See Sidebar I)
This gin-based Punch, made fresh daily, will soon be gone at this bar.
“The Punch phenomenon emerged as part of the craft cocktail revival and the recovery of the lost arts of the bar,” says Chad Solomon, co-founder along with Christy Pope of Cuffs & Buttons Cocktail Catering & Consulting, a Brooklyn, New York-based firm. He adds: “At a certain point beginning a few years ago, we all discovered Punch. And once it entered, it replaced bottle service; Punch is ideal for a shared experience.”
One of Cuffs & Buttons’s clients, Laird & Company, America’s oldest, family-owned distillery dating back to the 1600s and famed for its line of Applejack brandies, has seen its overall sales turbo-charged thanks to the country’s Punch revival. Cuffs & Button’s created “The Spirit of ‘76” (See Recipe Sidebar II), which features Laird’s Bonded Straight Apple Brandy, and its popularity helped fuel the company’s sales by an astonishing 25% in the last three years, says Lisa Laird-Dunn, Vice President and 9th-generation member in the Scobeyville, New Jersey-based firm. She adds, “In the last six years, Punch has really taken off, it is a natural transition from classic cocktails to Punches.”
Sales of Laird’s line of apple brandies have boomed thanks to the Punch renaissance.
At Bar TNT in Arlington, Virginia, co-owner and bartender, Todd Thrasher, says, “We serve a fresh-made Punch every day during and after Happy Hour.” During Happy Hour, Bar TNT charges $4 for a six-ounce serving; afterwards, $8. Thrasher reports, since the first day Bar TNT opened, during Happy Hour, “Punch accounts for about half our sales; it’s a big, big seller.” Thrasher and his partner also operate 5 other restaurants and bars in the northern Virginia region, and all of them feature Punch, he reports.
John Gersten, general manager at Drink in Boston, Massachusetts, notes that Punch is the ideal drink to offer as guests turn up for a special party or a private event. Says Gersten: “We try to have guests get a glass of punch as soon as they arrive. It takes a little pressure off the bartenders, plus it is a really great way to get people to mingle and talk.” He adds: “We try to price this Punch service at three 2-ounce servings at $10 a guest, some cost more, depending on the ingredients; we have served such historic Punches as Philadelphia Fish House Punch, Regent’s Punch, and Drink’s signature Sons of Liberty Punch.
The Fish House Punch is a classic recipe and interested bartenders may find it and many others in Jerry’s Thomas’s How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon Vivant’s Companion. This ground-breaking book was originally published in 1862 and it is widely considered the first serious American book on cocktails and Punches by drinks historians. (The book is available in reprint at: amazon.com)
An early edition of Jerry Thomas’s Bartenders Guide; note the drink first listed on the top left, under “All Kinds of”: Punch!
Ice-Breaker, Time-Saver Without Peer
Punch is a convivial drink in a way serving individually crafted cocktails is surely not, say mixologists. Joaquin Simo, a partner at Pouring Ribbons, a Lower East Side Manhattan bar, says, “Punch is a convivial beverage, it is all about shared merriment. And it’s a great way to save time for servers.”
As Damon Boelte, bar director at Frankies and Prime Meats in Brooklyn, New York, notes, “If you take the whole spectrum of drinks, Punch is without doubt the most social of drinks.” He adds, “We offer Punch every day at Prime Meats, it’s priced at $5 and we serve it in our collection of antique Punch glasses.” And it is a steady, profitable seller. Boelte reports, “Punch accounts for about 8%-top-10% of our bar business, which is actually quite substantial as we are known as a cocktail destination.”
As best-selling author of “Imbibe” and “Punch”, drinks historian and Esquire magazine columnist Dave Wondrich adds a very practical note in serving Punch whether at a bar or at home: “For a busy, craft-cocktail type bar, it works like it does for home entertainers: it gives them a way of serving large parties quickly with something delicious. The bartenders can knock out a bowl in as much time as it takes to make a single drink, and that’s six or eight people taken care of happily–sharing a bowl of punch is a fun social ritual–and one bartender who can get back to slinging drinks for the cocktail geeks at the bar.”
David Wondrich's PUNCH, the bible for 21st century bartenders and amateur mixologists.
SIDE BAR I: THE FOUR PILLARS OF PUNCH
In Dave Wondrich’s book, “Punch”, which is widely acclaimed by bartenders, cocktailians and mixologists with helping to trigger the current revival of this convivial libation, the author sets forth the four essential steps to making an authentic, savory Punch. With all credit due to Wondrich, here are the highlights of his four basic principles.
1) The “Ambrosial Essence” of Jerry Thomas
Wondrich sources the justly famed 19th century father of all things cocktail bartender/author Jerry Thomas with underlining the importance of the foundation of all great Punches: Oleo-saccharum, or “oil-sugar.” This “ambrosial essence” is mixture of sugar and lemon oils, achieved by peeling the yellow skin of the lemons (not the white pulp underneath) and putting these peeled curls into an appropriate measure of sugar for a minimum of 30 minutes, but the longer the better. It is this which infuses the sugar with a deep lemony character, yielding the necessary depth of flavor to the base recipe of any serious Punch.
This is the name of the base liquid blend of lemon or citrus juice in any authentic Punch. Depending on the specific recipe, the addition of a little water, to achieve the base liquid in advance of mixing in other spirits is critical, enabling spice and other ingredients to achieve their fullest flavors. Hint: the use of boiling water is recommended by Wondrich.
Wondrich working wonders on the finishing touches on a Punch.
3) The Order
Either by trial-and-error in creating a new Punch recipe, or in scrupulously following the sequence in mixing the remainder of ingredients in an establish Punch recipe, the order in adding each ingredient is critical to the successful blending of a Punch. A false step or short-cut may imperil the best of intentions in mixing up the perfect Punch.
Wondrich cautions that be it a single drink or crafting a large bowl of Punch, pay special attention to the proportions of the following constituent liquors in a given recipe: sweet, sour, strong and weak.
For more detail, see “Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of The Flowing Bowl”, p. 89-94, A Perigree Book/Penguin, New York, 2010.
Spirit of ’76 Runch
Christy Pope & Chad Solomon, Cuff & Buttons, New York, NY
8 oz. Laird’s applejack
24 oz. chai tea, chilled
8 oz. Jamaican rum
4 oz. lemon juice
4 oz. demerara syrup
1 granny smith apple, thinly sliced into 8 rounds
1 block of ice or ice ring
Nutmeg, for garnish
Directions: Combine the tea, applejack, rum, lemon juice, and simple syrup in a punchbowl, and add ice. Stir until chilled. Serve each glass with a nutmeg-dusted apple slice.
The author wishes to thank David Wondrich for his help in the preparation of this article. A version of this blog post appeared in the July 2013 issue of Beverage Media, which has graciously given its permission to reproduce the text and sidebars.