We’re well into the holiday season, and that means punch season, when my kitchen counter starts collecting citrus specimens that regularly have to be reassessed. “Did I buy these lemons for the punch for the Thanksgiving party? Or for that later thing for the office?” I’ll wonder, lifting each for closer inspection. The limes in my fruit bowl range from fat, shiny, new fruits to desiccated, shrunken hulls reminiscent of the dried organs of a rare equatorial amphibian, hopefully one that’s not smart enough to track me down to ask for them back.
Concocting a giant batch of something that will bring pleasure and conviviality to friends and loved ones is one of the joys of the season. I’ll be making several more rounds for holiday parties, and I have lately been exploring punches made with fortified wine.
Good port, Madeira, sherry, vermouth or quinquina (an herb-bittered wine such as Barolo Chinato and Byrrh) brings an immediate depth and complexity to a punch, enough so that your role can shift from architect to enabler: Rather than use a long roster of ingredients to build a quaff of complexity, your primary job is to stay out of the way of the complexity that’s already there.
Those wines are a marvelous cheat. As Scott Baird of the San Francisco-based hospitality group the Bon Vivants points out, “vermouth by itself is a cocktail in a bottle in a lot of ways.” The same goes for even those fortified wines that haven’t been herbally complicated: A bottle of port can bring notes of figs or raisins, sherry traces of hazelnuts or honey, vermouths and gentian wines bitter herbs or winter spices. If you use them well, your party-prep load — and your guests’ spirits — will be much lightened.
To get some historical inspiration, I foolishly called drink historian David Wondrich, author of the seminal text “Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl.” The book contains a handful of historical recipes for “punch royal”; the “royal,” Wondrich writes, is 17th-century English shorthand for a drink that had been upgraded from the common man’s ale or beer to a more aristocratic wine base.
I was foolish to call Wondrich not because talking to him is unpleasant but because whenever I talk to him, my plans to make a civilized little quaff meet the unstoppable force of his raconteuring, and I start to develop Terrible Ambitions.
“The problem with punch royal is that it was kind of hot rails to hell,” Wondrich says. “It can be nice when you add water and ice, but they didn’t always add the ice. Then you end up with one of my all-time favorite wine punches, Chatham Artillery Punch, which is absolutely lethal, but so pleasant.”
Chatham Artillery Punch — or, as Wondrich referred to it, “the sweet tears of Satan” — is a 19th-century Georgia recipe that comprises one part each rum, bourbon and cognac to three parts champagne. When the ice is omitted, the only non-alcoholic elements in the traditional version are lemon and sugar. Factor in the speedy tipsiness one incurs from carbonated alcohol, and you may get the picture. Wondrich recalled making a batch in a bathtub for 400 people at a conference, using three cases of sparkling wine and a case each of rum, bourbon and cognac. “They drank it in less than an hour. . . . There were issues along the lines of ‘Where are my pants?’ ”
It’s those anecdotes (“epic,” as the yoots say) that leave me thinking such things as “Scrubbing our bathtub clean enough to make a batch of punch there wouldn’t be that hard,” and, “It should be easy enough to rent a partridge to perch on the rim of my pear-tree punch. But where could I locate partridge diapers so that the bird would not befoul the drink?”
Happily, I usually manage to talk myself down from this ledge before the health department and animal control arrive. The holidays, after all, are stressful enough. Which, circling back, is why wine punches are so great: The good ones are festive and delicious enough that you don’t need avian adornments, and you can keep your bathtub free for guests who have overindulged and may need a place to nap.
Take the Bon Vivants’ Lost Leaves punch with spiced apples and vermouth, a bibulous bridge from autumn to winter. “I’ve got a real guideline I live by, which is, ‘Don’t fight the obvious,’ ” says Baird. “All of those flavors suit this time of year. Even standing alone, each is a flavor of this season, but combined they work together very well.” The vermouth is the lovely Noilly Prat Ambré, a sweet, golden wine that Baird says is one of his all-time favorites, so good that “the French kept most of it.” (If you have a hard time finding it, the bianco Vermouth del Professore would substitute nicely; Baird suggested Carpano Antica.)
Washington’s own Dan Searing, author of “The Punch Bowl,” hits holiday notes through and through with his Conquistador Punch, primarily because of how it incorporates clementines, a fruit commonly shared during the season. They have a brightness and florality different from those of standard oranges, and the smell of their skins — a small round of which should be twisted over each serving of the punch, coating the surface with a trace of its aromatic oils — is an olfactory Christmas carol, especially when deepened with the rich, nutty sweetness of Pedro Ximénez sherry.
For my own contribution, I started with Byrrh, a bittersweet French aperitif wine that I’m crazy for; made it richer with cognac and cassis; then smacked it with the baking-spice notes of Angostura bitters and vanilla. Be careful with the vanilla: It adds a rich and flavor-binding note, but unlike in chocolate chip cookie recipes (where I usually double the amount called for), in drinks it must be used with great restraint or it turns into a kraken, lurking at the bottom of the bowl and determined to strangle every other flavor with its tentacles.
As with all punches, recall Wondrich’s “hot rails to hell” caveat and remember to use plenty of ice. Dilution is key to a proper punch, not only to the flavor but to your guests’ sanity and decorum. If you forget it, Uber is likely to start surge-pricing just for your party. But get it right, and you’ll help your guests sail into the new year — rich in wine, friendship and vitamin C.
Allan is a Hyattsville, Md., writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.