Good drinks tell a story... and this is the story of those drinks. Each week, we'll be serving up a remedial cocktail lesson for bartending beginners to help you get the most out of your glass, with recipes, interviews, and histories coming right up.
Lesson 2: Punch
Like too many others, I made the acquaintance of punch in its basest form. I'm speaking of the aberration known as jungle juice, which is usually served in an actual trash can to indicate that it is indeed actual trash.
Yep, punch gone wrong can be... a bad punch line. But the concept of a long (large volume) and strong (high proof) bowl of booze was the starting point for many a beloved cocktail. And executed nicely, punches are perfect for entertaining since all the work's done ahead of time.
For my re-education on the subject of punches I went to see Daniel Godinez at 15 Romolo, the dark, handsome North Beach watering hole within the Basque Hotel. His punches have been celebrated in competitions like Cochon 555 Punch Kings and are presented at the bar's weekend brunches.
The word punch comes from the sanskrit word five, referring to the ingredients Godinez walked me through. "You're just mixing your spirit, your citrus, sugar, bitters, and something to lengthen it all so you're not drinking just a bunch of booze. There, tea is very common in historic punches, as are bubbles: champagne, Prosecco, soda water. You're trying to make a lot of something you can enjoy throughout the evening."
Tea ought to be your tip off as to the origins of punch. "Punch really started during the Indian spice trade. British sailors were given a ration of lime, sugar, and booze, so to make it last longer, they'd lengthen it." It's said that between the 1670s and the 1850s punches reigned supreme, popularized by these English sailors and travelers to India.
Godinez recommends you start on your punch sooner rather than later, first by making some ice in a tupperware. "Ice is a big component. You want a big block so dilution can take its time. Usually you want to let your ice block sit for over 2 days." Also, ahead of time Godinez advises you to make an oleo-saccharum, meaning oily sugar. "You're getting a bunch of lemons and oranges, peeling them, and macerating them and covering them in sugar. The oils will come out if you do it a day to a couple days ahead, and it'll be very bright and citrusy."
Other tips for punch newbies? "The biggest, most basic thing I tell my friends is it's all about proportions: 1 bottle, 750 milliliters of booze, cut with at least a quarter of that volume in citrus, and maybe 8 oz of sweetener. And then the thing you want to do most is to lengthen it well. For this season I'd recommend a nicely spiced tea, maybe something with cardamom."
Unfortunately for ornate punch bowls everywhere, punch's popularity declined sharply after the 1850s, first as temperance movements took hold and later as improvements in distilling were made. And, in particular, aging liquors for better flavors meant not as much work needed to be done in order to actually drink them, so punches weren't as necessary.
Last, ideas of democracy and individuality entered the bar, with gentlemen preferring their own drinks to a large shared bowl. But the holidays are about sharing and traditions, so revive some punch this year with this recipe:
(adapted from David Wondrich)
5 to 6 oz. lemon juice (to taste)
1 cup Demerara or Turbinado sugar
1 750ml bottle bourbon (or more, to taste)
32 oz. of water, divided
Grate the zest of four lemons into a bowl filled with the sugar, and mash and stir to combine. Let sit for an hour so that citrus oil absorbs into sugar.
Add 16 oz. boiling water, stir to dissolve all the sugar. Add lemon juice and strain through a fine mesh sieve and add 16oz. more cold water. This can then be set aside as punch base and added to make smaller or larger batches of punch. (It can also be scaled up to make more batches of punch for a party, adding whiskey and water for subsequent batches.) This is called a shrub and can be stored for a few days.
In a punch bowl or pitcher add bottle of decent bourbon to the shrub (amount can vary to taste, Bulleit and Jim Beam work well) along with another 16oz of water and more lemon juice (also, to taste — add less water if using block ice, and even less if using cube ice in a bowl that will dissolve faster). Ideally it should be equal parts sweet, tart, and potent, but more drinkable and less boozy than a highball cocktail. Optional: Add 5-6 dashes of Angostura or plum bitters.
Serve over ice.