This is a tricky time of year for cocktails. We've turned the corner into fall, and yet it's still hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk. How can we ease the transition from frosty summer concoctions to warm winter imbibements? Make a bowl of punch!
Punch has too long been relegated to bowls of rainbow sherbet, Sprite and vodka. Delicious as that may be, there's a whole world of under-explored and under-appreciated punches. As a party host, a bowl of punch is your best friend: Prep a simple punch hours in advance, and set it out just as guests arrive. It's a buffer that prevents drinkless partygoers from crankily crowding your bar.
Personally, I like to look to the past to inspire my contemporary cocktails. For example, flip through the first cocktail guide, published in 1862: Jerry Thomas' How to Mix Drinks. You'll find page after page of punch recipes. In fact, punch was so popular in the mid-19th century, that during the holidays "Punch Makers" were employed to travel from house to house, concocting some serious drinks for New Year's celebrations.
Thomas offers some solid advice for making the perfect punch:
"To make punch of any sort in perfection, the ambrosial essence of the lemon must be extracted by rubbing lumps of sugar on the rind, which breaks the delicate little vessels that contain the essence, and at the same time absorbs it. This, and making the mixture sweet and strong, using tea instead of water, and thoroughly amalgamating all the compounds, so that the taste of neither the bitter, the sweet, the spirit, nor the element, shall be perceptible one over the other, is the grand secret, only to be acquired by practice.
The precise portions of spirit and water, or even of the acidity and sweetness, can have no general rule, as scarcely two persons make punch alike."
Here are some picks from Thomas' book to ease you into cooler weather.
September Punch: The Pineapple Julep
This icy punch is perfectly sweet and easy to drink. But lightweights be warned: a good rule of thumb for Victorian punch making is that the mixer for booze is more booze.
Raspberry syrup can be bought online and in some grocery stores in the coffee and tea section. Any cheap gin works well in this punch, but for a more complex flavor, try an Old Tom Gin. It's a slightly sweet, antiquated gin that has recently reappeared on the market.
1 ripe pineapple, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
2 oranges, juiced
1/2 cup raspberry syrup
1/2 cup Maraschino liquor
1/2 cup gin
1 bottle prosecco, or other sparkling wine
Berries in season
Place the pineapple chunks in a large punch bowl; add orange juice and raspberry syrup, followed by the alcohol. Stir to combine. Just before serving, add about a pound of crushed or shaved ice. Garnish with a handful of blueberries, raspberries, or any berry in season.
October Punch: Ruby Punch
"This punch is like the 19th century version of a vodka and Red Bull," a friend quipped as I mixed port wine and green tea. But making punch with tea instead of water adds a depth of flavor that compliments any mix of ingredients. Warm and wholesome, this drink is perfect as the weather gets cooler.
This punch uses Batavia Arrack, a rum-like liquor distilled from red rice and sugar cane, which hails from Java (formerly Dutch Batavia). Although Arrack was a popular ingredient in 19th century punches, it disappeared from liquor store shelves for nearly 100 years. Thanks to the classic cocktail revival, it's making a comeback. I found my bottle at Astor Wine & Spirits, who also accept online orders.
3 pints (6 cups) hot green tea
1 pounds (approx. 2 cups) sugar
1 pint Batavia Arrack
1 pint port wine
In a punch bowl, rub the sugar on the rinds of the lemons to release the lemon essence. Remove lemons and add tea, stirring until the sugar is completely dissolved. Juice lemons and add to punch bowl, followed by the Arrack and port. Stir to combine.
Sarah Lohman is an artist, writer, and historical gastronomist living in Long Island City, NY. She writes about antique food and cocktails at Four Pounds Flour.