Punch serves up communal drinking

The centuries-old drink finds contemporary fans

What’s old is new again pretty often in the bar business. But few new libations go back as far, or are as fashionable now, as the centuries-old British sailor’s tipple called punch. It appeals to contemporary clientele as the next step in the craft cocktail renaissance and the centerpiece of a revived social ritual.

“The punch bowl encourages a different way of drinking and interacting with people,” said Robert Haynes, senior bartender at The Violet Hour in Chicago, which is one of a growing number of venues that offers entire bowls of punch to groups of guests.

The modern speakeasy has adapted practices that date back to the 18th and 19th centuries in the Points East, a punch made with cognac, Jamaican dark rum, green tea, lemon peels muddled with sugar, peach bitters and dry Riesling wine.

“You enjoy the punch, but it becomes less about the drink and more about the communal experience, sitting around the punch bowl and ladling it out to your friends,” said Haynes.

At The Spare Room, a cocktail lounge and gaming parlor in Los Angeles, manager and lead mixologist Aidan Demarest likened the punch bowl to “the proverbial bonfire” around which people gather.

“It brings four, five, 10 people all into one common thread,” said Demarest. “The bowl, the accoutrements and the evolving cocktail all bring you instantly to a party.”

The Spare Room has seven punches, each built around a featured spirit: vodka, tequila, rye, Batavia arrack, genever, cognac and gin. The recipes downplay sweetness and highlight the robust flavors of the spirits.

“It is not grandma’s bingo punch,” said Demarest.

The most popular is Take Fountain, made with vodka, lemon and sugar essence, fino sherry, jasmine green tea, and elderflower liqueur. To heighten the bouquet, the bowl is spritzed with orange oil in a perfume atomizer at service.

“Punch is here to stay,” said Willy Shine of Contemporary Cocktails, a New York-based bar consultancy. “In fact, this summer I think it is going to become even more popular, like pitchers of cocktails were in previous years.”

Shine is a member of the Cocktail Collective, a group of prominent mixologists from around the country who put together the 13-item punch list of Forty Four, a bar and restaurant at New York’s Royalton Hotel. Included are the Martha Washington, which combines white and 12-year-old rums, Grand Marnier, fresh lemon and orange juice, and nutmeg; and the Shoe Buckle, which unites Jameson Irish whiskey, Guinness draft, Carpano Antica Formula and Ramazzotti Amaro, priced at $135.

Creating rapport among seemingly disparate ingredients, like the whiskey, stout, sweet vermouth and herbal liqueur in the Shoe Buckle, is part of the magic of punch.

“People wouldn’t think of putting these flavors together, but it succeeds – much like a dish you taste in a fine-dining restaurant,” Shine said.

Punch makers who aspire to authenticity face the challenge of translating a drink born of more leisurely times to the fast-paced digital age. To expedite service, the Violet Hour’s Haynes starts his oleosaccharum, the muddle of lemon, orange or grapefruit peels with sugar, a day in advance, in keeping with historical practice.

“It’s an exercise in patience and diligence,” said Haynes. Still, he swears by the 24-hour process. “You get this really concentrated, bright flavor to build your punch with.”

At Donatella and D Bar in New York, the current offering is an aromatic and colorful signature punch made with citrus vodka, sour cherry puree, spiced clove syrup and fresh lemon juice. Bobbing in the bowl is a garnish of lemon and grapefruit wheels and fresh rosemary sprigs.

“People have really loved it,” said manager Darnell Dodson. “Often when people see us making it at the bar, they want to order it, too.”

Noting the affinity that punch has with social events, Arlington, Va.-based Interstate Hotels & Resorts offers a punch program for catering. It is an appealing option for catering guests at a time when event budgets still tend to be limited. The Mojito, mimosa and cran-apple cider punches, made with sparkling wine and a variety of fresh fruits, juices, spirits and liqueurs, “have increased the sagging beverage sales in catering,” reported Bradley Moore, corporate director of food and beverage operations, in an email.

At the Edison, a nostalgia-steeped bar and restaurant in Los Angeles, the one-of-a-kind Whiskey Barrel punch is made with a special blend of Woodford Reserve bourbon that the bar staff personally selects with the master distiller, plus pomegranate syrup, lemon peel, sugar, bitters and Champagne.

“No other place in the world can offer this because the bourbon is our bottling,” said director of spirits Joe Brooke. “The best part is recommending it to people who would not normally drink brown spirits,” he said. “We are huge fans of brown spirits here.”