Pleased as Punch

Ahead of the World Class Challenge ‘Punch and Glass’, New Jersey author and bartender Warren Bobrow, an expert in old tinctures and mixes, provides an insight into the qualities – both financial as well as flavoured – of a good punch.

Enjoy the irresistible perfume of citrus-based punches.

Just say the word punch and any good bartender will smile a very knowing smile. A punch means a social occasion. It allows a group of people to be together, sharing a cup of good cheer, no matter what the season.

But punch also means profit to your bottom line. That’s because of what you can put into the drink thanks to the history that goes into every glass.

Across the southern seas

The word punch is derived loosely from the Hindi word Panch or ‘five’ ingredients: alcohol, sugar, citrus, water and tea or spices. It’s the precursor of the modern-day cocktail, in other words. During the early days of sail in the 1600s, British sailors who plied the far-off southern oceans in their sailing vessels sought a certain level of panacea against the blazing heat and their relentless backbreaking work. With a usual draught of beer long-soured from the extreme heat and humidity, they sought liquid relaxation using available ingredients.

Such as arrack, from India, a potent intoxicant, distilled from coconut flowers. This was the liquor of necessity. Soon rum distilled from the abundant sugar cane grown in the region became the preferred base sprit because of its affinity with fruit flavours.

The writer Tennyson came up with a Scotch whisky and Claret punch in the 19th century; Charles Dickens suggested caramelising the sugar for his toddy over a large fire. But you might want to avoid these rather basic concoctions – the early methods of making punch were sometimes more akin to our modern day collegiate versions. Instead, the use of freshly squeezed juices and top shelf liquors elevates your concoctions to a veritable plethora of flavours, colours and styles.

A punch first created on Christmas Day 1694 by Admiral Edwards Russell in Cádiz, Spain, is highly recommended for the tasty combination of VSOP-grade cognac, oloroso or amontillado sherry, plus lemon juice, sugar and nutmeg. Although because you won’t be throwing a party for 6,000 guests you might want to adjust the 1,200 gallons that went into it. The punch was served in a tiled fountain, and a ship’s boy floated in the middle on a small rowboat, ladling out the drink. Meanwhile a whole roast ox sizzled in the background. You could scale back on the serving method too.

Ambrosial essence

Winding forward, the punch recipes in Jerry Thomas’ 1862 Bartenders Guide use more conventional quantities, but not ingredients. His Regents Punch, for example, adopts Capillaire, a medicinal syrup made from the small-leafed maidenhair fern, combined with orange-flower water and honey. It’s mixed with brandy, rum, curacao, arrack, champagne, hot green tea, lemon juice and sugar, and garnished with orange and pineapple slices, and is highly recommended.

More recently David Wondrich published a book called Punch: the Delights (and Dangers) of the Holiday Bowl, in which he laid out his favourite punch proportions: “One of sour, one of sweet, four of strong and six of weak” and explains how to prepare ‘oleo-saccharum’, the mix of citrus oil and sugar giving punch its “ambrosial essence”. However, while the punch is the precursor to the cocktail Wondrich explains its great difference to the classic mixed drink:

“We expect a cocktail to be big and bold and concentrated in flavour. If you make a punch with the same intensity, it gets pretty cloying over time. The whole idea with punch is that it should be a little, well, not bland, but definitely subtle,” adds Wondrich. “You want your guests to be able to drink it to the bottom of the bowl.”

So, while the punch has evolved over the centuries the basic premise remains the same: reduce the spirit quantities and increase the other ingredients. Down in New Orleans you may find a classic restorative in this vein, the milk punch made with Bulleit Bourbon. Or in Scotland, your punch might come heated with assorted citrus juices in a thick walled mug, with a base of smoky Scotch whisky like Johnny Walker Gold Label and steaming hot tea.

Irresistible and citrus-based

To serve your punch, think about the best way to bring flavour onto the bar in a visually attractive manner. A large crystal bowl should be set in a prominent position, and then filled with liquid. It needs to be glowing in the bar light, sitting in a bed of hand-cut ice to drive sales through visual interest and the internal aromatics. Freshly cut grapefruit zest peeled over a glass of punch is irresistible with your perfumed citrus-based punches.

Use culinary ingredients in various guises to help lower the food or bar costs. Have that conversation with your restaurant chef and utilise fruits that might not be appropriate visually for the plate due to a dark spot or a bruise. These are the perfect ingredients for your profitable punch. Punch is very forgiving as a monetary vehicle – use it to finish off bottles of spirits too small to pour for your guests. If you are losing money on your punch, someone is drinking it other than the customers!

For the final touch, a punch should be poured into uniquely styled glassware or even fancy cups. Antique teacups may fit your décor if you have the ubiquitous Victorian styled punch set. Straws for sharing a punch amongst your guests should be available only on request due to the myriad of local health standards that may forbid this practice, unfortunately. Don’t get in trouble over this one!

A punch bowl comprised of freshly squeezed fruit juices and quality liquors cannot help to extend your profit margin – use flavour to guarantee repeat business.

New Orleans-style Milk Punch

Created for, and presented at, Tales of the Cocktail 2013, for 10 people or so with second servings: perfect where restoration is part of the joy of drinking.

750ml Bulleit Bourbon
1l Whole milk
1l Heavy whipping cream
3 tbsp Vanilla extract
120ml Simple syrup (1:1 ratio caster or bar sugar to boiling water – let it cool before using)
3 dashes Orange flower water
Fresh nutmeg
Hand-cut ice chunk

1. To a large punch bowl, add your hunk of freshly cut ice 3x3 or 4x4 at most (don’t dilute – chill). Add the Bulleit Bourbon, then the milk and the whipping cream. Stir gently to combine – this is not a race! Add the vanilla extract, the simple syrup and stir again to combine, gently! Ladle the milk punch into teacups and scrape some fresh nutmeg over the top.

Hot Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve Scotch Punch

Perfect for a Scottish poetry night or on a sub-freezing night where you laugh at the cold one sip at a time. Serves 10 or so.

Peel and then slice the pineapples into thick (3 inch) slices. Sear over cast iron or over charcoal until grill marks show. Cool and juice to yield 500ml quart of juice – you may need to grill a few pineapples to achieve this quantity.

750ml Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve Scotch Whisky
500ml Grilled pineapple juice
500ml Freshly squeezed orange juice
250ml Lemon juice
250ml Lime juice
950ml Hot tea
250ml Raw (untreated) honey simple syrup (1:1 ratio honey to boiling water)

Make a pot of dark tea and sweeten to taste with raw honey simple syrup. Add the Johnnie Walker Gold Label Scotch Whisky, then the juices and stir. Taste and correct for sweetness. Serve in heat-resistant teacups with a slice of lemon.

How often do you mix punch? Do you have a favourite recipe? Tell us about it below.

About the author

Warren Bobrow is an expert in the history of homemade tinctures from the nineteenth century. Author of Apothecary Cocktails, published in October, and with a book on whisky cocktails due out later this year, Warren was a listed ‘personality’ at last year’s Tales of the Cocktail and is a Ministry of Rum judge.