Spirits: Restoring dignity to punch
Tuesday, November 9, 2010; 3:25 PM
Punch, in case you didn't know, is what the cool kids are drinking. I cringe a little as I write that, for two reasons. First, I know that as soon as I commit the punch-is-hip idea to print, some fancy publication in New York will tell us that some other libation is truly of the moment. (Wait, wasn't it mezcal a few months ago? Is mezcal still cool? Maybe sipping mezcal and not wearing deodorant? Ugh, I cannot keep up.)
Mostly, though, I hesitate to admit that we are in the midst of a Punch Bowl Revival because, until recently, I just never got punch. I mean, I've written about interesting haute punch recipes that move beyond the Kool-Aid-and-Everclear and lord-knows-what-else inflicted at underage college-dorm parties and the sherbet-and-ginger-ale stuff that little old ladies served.
Still, most punches - lovely as they can be - seemed a far cry from the cocktails and spirits I've been advocating in this space over the years. Punches, to be honest, had become slightly irritating, something I'd be asked about almost every week, usually by frantic party hosts who wanted something to "make ahead" or "serve in a big bowl or pitcher" so they didn't have to mix a proper cocktail for their guests.
Well, I've now realized my folly. It happened as I was reading David Wondrich's wonderful new book, "Punch," the follow-up to his essential 2007 cocktail history, "Imbibe!" In "Punch," Wondrich walks us through the drink's history, in particular its heyday in the 17th and 18th centuries. It is a shadowy history, for sure: Punch may or may not have been invented in colonial India, and may or not have taken the Hindi word "panch" - meaning "five" - as its name. That story makes sense, especially since traditional punches contain five basic elements: strong (liquor), weak (water), sweet (sugar), sour (citrus) and spice.
During the Restoration, punch was all the rage in London, especially among the literary set populated by the likes of John Dryden, Joseph Addison, Daniel Defoe, Samuel Pepys and Aphra Behn. Well-heeled hipsters would spend their afternoons at the tavern or coffeehouse, drinking from the punch bowl with their buddies. Eventually, the trend spread to the North American colonies.
Although the history is entertaining, Wondrich's book has a more important aim: namely, to cultivate a new, modern appreciation for punch. In a chapter titled "The Reason Why" he lays out a Theory of Punch worthy of Derrida or Foucault. We need to enjoy punch, Wondrich writes, "as something not only different in scale from the now-ubiquitous Cocktail but also different in kind. We have to, for a brief moment, dethrone the Cocktail, expel it from our thinking.
"Above all things, Punch must be moreish," Wondrich continues. And by "moreish," he means simply that "it makes you want to drink more of it." Punch, according to Wondrich, is "a long-distance drink, not a sprinter like the Cocktail. If you've made five gallons of the stuff, you want to make sure that five gallons is what people will drink, not two."
In the beer world, there's a distinction between the serious, hopped-up, big-flavor, high-alcohol monsters and the type of lighter beer one normally imbibes all evening, the ones called "session beers." Punch, then, could be called a session drink. Wondrich also reasons that a punch should contain about as much alcohol as a light sherry or a big California zinfandel.
I guess all of that should have been self-evident, but I'd not truly considered it before. Once I did, it made a lot of sense when I read that punchmakers must be cognizant of what Wondrich calls the "aqueous" element. In making cocktails, dilution is to be avoided. But in punch, the water - be it seltzer, a block of ice or simply cold tap water - plays a key role. In the punch recipes I include online, pay special attention to that. Wondrich recounts the first time he made traditional Philadelphia Fish House Punch and omitted most of the water from the 18th-century recipe. "Fortunately," he writes, "it was at a house party out in the country, and nobody had to drive. Or even walk."
One fascinating chapter in the book deals with punch jelly: It seems that the infamous Jell-O shot, that lowbrow 1980s college-bar standby, actually has historical roots that date to at least the mid-1800s. Of punch jelly, Wondrich states: "In my mind, it occupies a shelf in the same compartment that holds the rapier, the Colt revolver, the common house cat and the German panzer tank. It is a perfect killing machine." Consider yourself warned.
Oh, and don't worry. I'm not about to pronounce the Jell-O shot the new hot trend. I'll leave that to someone else.
Wilson is the author of "Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits" (Ten Speed Press, 2011).