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Not Your Aunt Prudence's Punch

By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Is there a sadder, more pathetic mixed drink than punch? I doubt it. Punch is what gets spiked at the prom. Punch is what gets mixed in a trash can with Kool-Aid and Everclear and God-knows- what-else at a basement college party. Punch is that weak old mixture your aunt makes at holiday time, the one with the lumps of sherbet slowly melting into a soup of canned fruit juices and flattening ginger ale.

[See: Recipe for Pisco Punch and Recipe for Santa Maria]

The punch bowl can be a scary, ugly place. And yet it doesn't have to be.

In fact, it wasn't always thus. "For nearly two hundred years, from the 1670s to the 1850s, the Kingdom of Mixed Drinks was ruled by the Bowl of Punch," writes David Wondrich in his informative and often hilarious new cocktail history, "Imbibe!" (Perigee Trade, 2007). Traditional American punch, Wondrich tells us, "bears the same relation to the anemic concoctions that pass under its name today that gladiatorial combat does to a sorority pillow fight."

So what are we left with in the modern punch bowl? "There's basically the fraternity kind of punch and the food magazine kind of punch," Wondrich says in a phone interview. "And they both suck."

It turns out, however, that Wondrich is a huge fan of real punch, and he is out to change the drink's fate. An entire chapter of "Imbibe!" is devoted to 18th- and 19th-century punch recipes: Brandy Punch, Milk Punch, 69th Regiment Punch, Chatham Artillery Punch.

British sailors discovered punch in India in the 16th century. The name, according to drinks writer Daniel Rogov, derives from the Hindi word paanch, meaning "five," because the drink traditionally called for five elements: sugar, bitters or spices, lemon, water and a high-proof spirit. The beverage soon became a staple in British clubs and taverns, requiring a certain commitment from the group of gentlemen gathered around the big bowl. But as the industrialized 19th century wore on, opportunities for extended, leisurely drinking began to disappear. "You couldn't really take a whole afternoon to drink with your buds," Wondrich says.

In 1853, Household Words, a magazine edited by Charles Dickens, ran a nostalgic piece entitled "A Bowl of Punch," which recounted a visit to a Fleet Street bar where all the old china punch bowls had been stacked in a corner, no longer used.

Perhaps it's time for real punch to rise again. "Cutting-edge bars are starting to serve punch," Wondrich says, citing such chic spots in New York as Death & Co. and PDT.

As one example of a delicious punch, Wondrich mentions in "Imbibe!" the famed Philadelphia Fish-House Punch, which dates from the early 18th century and calls for 3 ounces of peach brandy, 27 ounces of cognac and 18 ounces of rum along with a pint of lemon juice, a pound of sugar and 3 quarts of water.

He also lavishes attention on Pisco Punch, traditionally a simple concoction of crushed pineapple, lemon juice and pisco, a clear brandy originating in either Peru or Chile (depending on whether you're speaking with a Peruvian or a Chilean).

Wondrich calls Pisco Punch "San Francisco's secret weapon," and in the 19th and early 20th centuries it was far and away that city's preferred drink. Yet by 1950, both pisco and Pisco Punch -- like many pre-Prohibition cocktails -- had pretty much disappeared from American life.

Luckily for us, pisco once again is widely available and growing in popularity. And Pisco Punch lives again in interesting new interpretations. When I was in San Francisco recently, I encountered a cutting-edge take on the classic at Cantina Bebidas, a cool new Latin-theme bar that opened this past summer near Union Square.

Duggan McDonnell, Cantina Bebidas's owner, takes his Pisco Punch in a wild direction, adding limoncello, brown sugar syrup, lime and orange juices, bitters and ginger beer to the traditional pisco and crushed pineapple. McDonnell also serves another innovative punch called a Santa Maria, made from tequila, white port, falernum (spice-infused rum), lemons, limes, ginger beer and a dollop of agave nectar.

Forget the old punch bowl for these, and mix them in a glass pitcher. Neither one will remind you of prom tuxedos, drinking from a trash can or sherbet dissolving into foam.

Jason Wilson's Spirits column appears every other week. He can be reached atfood@washpost.com.

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