Forgive me as I begin with the most basic of food-writing conventions: the Dinner Party Dilemma. A few Fridays ago, I was about to walk over to a neighbor’s barbecue, and I realized at the last minute that I didn’t have any wine in the house appropriate to take as a gift. I was fresh out of the nice patio-sipping whites and light reds, and the stuff in the cellar wasn’t right. Yes, I know: a real first-world problem. What to do? What. To. Do.
Well, I was already late, so no time to turn on the oven and whip up a batch of cookies or brownies. Feeling desperate (sorry, the convention calls for some drama here!), I thought back to the questions I get from harried hosts, asking for drinks they can make ahead with little fuss. I know my friend is a good cook, surely immersed in the food prep, and probably had not considered cocktails. So what could I make for 20 people in less than 10 minutes?
Punch. Yes, I would make punch.
I would grab two bottles (cachaca and port, in this case), measure them into a pitcher, squeeze in some lime juice, dash in some bitters and simple syrup, stir well, and then — as a fancy touch — funnel all of it into a swing-top glass bottle from Ikea. Voila: Thieves’ Punch. It was the perfect surprise hostess gift, poured over ice and enjoyed by all. Not only did the punch solve my Dinner Party Dilemma, but it also highlighted my finer qualities as a thoughtful, good friend. Or something like that.
That story illustrates just how far my relationship with punch has evolved. Only a few years ago, I was sneering at those harried hosts clamoring for make-ahead drinks. These days, I’m in an all-out love affair with punch, as are many cocktail enthusiasts. Punch is indeed trendy.
So it’s fortuitous that Dan Searing, partner and bar manager at Room 11 in Columbia Heights, has come forth with his wonderful first book, “The Punch Bowl” (Sterling Epicure), with 75 punch recipes, just in time for summer entertaining.
I love the old-fashioned vibe of Searing’s book. One thing that sets “The Punch Bowl” apart from other guides is that it actually illustrates the classic recipes. Yes, there has been a spate of reissued antique cocktail guides, but very few of them show you what the old punches are supposed to look like.
In his introduction, Searing writes about the challenges of modernizing recipes from the 18th and 19th centuries: “Since many of these punches were made to serve army regiments and other large groups, of one hundred people or more, the recipes sometimes sport phrases like ‘mix with a wooden paddle’ or ‘place in trough to serve.’ ”
Particularly tricky was converting the old apothecaries’ weights and measures, such as the gill (4 ounces), the wine-glassful (2 ounces) and the hogshead (63 gallons).
There was also the issue of nomenclature, with recipes calling for such ingredients as “claret” (known to us as Bordeaux), “hock” (what the British called cheap German wine) and catawba (a sweet, fruity American wine that was prevalent in the mid- to late 19th century but is nearly impossible to find now).
Beyond rum, gin and brandy, Old World wines such as sherry, port, Madeira or the Hungarian wine Tokaji turn up in about a quarter of the recipes. “A couple of centuries ago, they approached sweetness in a different way,” Searing said. Even the idea of “sweet” was different back then: not candied and artificial like now, but more of an elemental, layered sweetness. Sauternes, the sweet wine from Bordeaux made from botrytized, or “noble rot,” grapes, is featured in a number of punches. “It was the most celebrated wine in the 19th century,” Searing told me by phone. “But now it’s been so far eclipsed by dry wine.”
Still, these sweet or fortified wines bring something to the punches in the book, such as the accompanying Light Guard Punch recipe, which is a mix of cognac, sherry and Sauternes. These days, Sauternes is usually pricey, and so I tried a number of less expensive dessert wines, finally settling on Tokaji, which also uses botrytized grapes. The result is refreshing, and the sweet wine adds flavor without being cloying.
When it comes to older recipes in “The Punch Bowl,” this sort of trial-and-error and substitution is encouraged by Searing. Many of the recipes, for instance, call for champagne, which can be expensive — and you don’t want to use the cheap stuff. In most cases, a decent cava or Cremant works just fine.
“I’d like people to see punches as something that have returned to stay,” Searing says. “Not just a trend.” His book should help ensure that outcome.
Wilson is author of “Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits” (Ten Speed Press, 2011). Follow him at twitter.com/boozecolumnist.