In the classic World War I film Grand Illusion, German Captain von Rauffenstein walks into the officers’ mess hall, fresh from a flying mission, and says to one of his officers, “Freisler, make us one of your famous fruit punches to celebrate the downing of my twelfth plane.” Freisler reads off a list of necessary ingredients to the barman as the camera pans away: “Three bottles of Moselle, two Rhine, half a bottle of Martell, three bubbly, two seltzer, pineapple…” In the next scene, two captured French airmen are offered punch from a spherical crystal bowl filled with slices of fresh fruit. War may have been hell, then as now, but at least somebody was tending bar.
The art of punch
For centuries, bowls of punch have marked special occasions, from feats of military daring to, much later, the passage of children into adulthood—your high school prom, for example. But those super-sweet candy-colored concoctions ladled out in school gymnasiums bear about as much resemblance to old-fashioned punch as a “fruit cocktail” does to a dry martini.
Punch’s heyday was 18th-century England, where punch was a celebration of the breadth of the Empire, combining tea and spices from Asia with the spirits and wines of Europe and the New World. The British probably learned the art of punch in India, where the Hindi word panch means five, corresponding to the traditional five ingredients of the most basic punch: strong (spirits like brandy and rum), weak (water or tea), sour (citrus), sweet (sugar), and spice (which could be just about anything else added to the mix, from nutmeg and coriander to ambergris, a musky, waxy substance harvested from sperm whales).
When the custom was imported by the American colonists, punch became the centerpiece of the tavern table, where people gathered to talk taxes and treason in the days before the Revolution. In time, punch would fall out of fashion, as the great-grandchildren of the founding fathers just didn’t have the time to drink to the bottom of the bowl. They preferred the short, quick, made-to-order cocktails that took American barrooms by storm in the late 1800s. And so punch bowls were packed away on high, dusty shelves, only to be brought down for special occasions, like weddings, holidays, or high-school dances.
Life of the party
Thanks to today’s history-obsessed mixologists, vintage punches are on the menu in some of the nation’s hippest cocktail dens, from San Francisco to Boston, and punch bowls have replaced speakeasy-style arm garters and turn-of-the-century bar manuals as the bartender’s must-have accessory. The trend has trickled down to the amateur entertainer as well, for punch remains the most efficient and elegant way to serve a party crowd, no matter the season or occasion. For the time-strapped host of today, it’s a godsend. Punch is, by necessity, prepared in advance, allowing the host to cook or decorate in the hours before a party. Guests can serve themselves, eliminating the need for a bartender. Most important, a well-made punch appeals to everyone. It’s not too strong, not too sweet, and after an initial sip, those tipplers who instinctively reach for wine, Champagne, or vodka-soda highballs will likely compete to drain the bowl dry.
Last, there’s something grand and romantic about punch; the sight of the flowing bowl marks an occasion as special indeed. In his 1939 book, The Gentleman’s Companion, the American writer and world-traveler Charles H. Baker Jr. recorded drink recipes from three trips around the world, including punch recipes from San Salvador, Vienna, Punjab, and Santiago de Cuba. He wrote: “Few things in life are more kind to man’s eye than the sight of a gracefully conceived punch bowl…enmeshing every beam of light, and tossing it back into a thousand shattered spectra to remind us of the willing cheer within.” Through the centuries of war and peace, that light has not dimmed.
Charles H. Baker Jr., an American food, drink, and travel writer, proposed a “few—but inflexible” rules for punch makers, which are as apt today as they were in 1930s, when he wrote them.
- Wait for it. Add sparkling wine, sparkling water, or any other bubbly beverage to your punch just before serving. “The whole object to a sparkling punch is to have it sparkle.”
- Chill out. Use big blocks of ice, not small cubes. Cubes melt quickly and “dilution beyond a certain point courts sure disaster.” Making ice blocks is simple: fill metal bowls or cake pans with water and freeze them overnight. To unmold, briefly dip the bottom of the bowl or pan into warm water to release the ice.
- Plan ahead. Chill all of the punch ingredients at least a few hours before adding them to your punch bowl. “Pouring room temperature liquids on any sort of ice is a withering shock to the ice itself.” If possible, chill the punch bowl too, either in the refrigerator or with bags of ice.