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Perfect Punch - A User Manual for Holiday Hosts

When it comes to serving a large group, nothing delivers quite like a holiday punch. Read on as Andrew Meltzer, 2016 World Class US Bartender of the Year, provides a few simple rules to follow to make large format punches full of delicious flavor.


Andrew Meltzer

Holiday season is fast approaching and I’m more excited than ever for festive gatherings with friends, family and colleagues. While there’s plenty of holiday cheer in wine and beer, nothing is merrier than a bowl of punch to complement a day of gift-giving or a celebratory feast. Making cocktails for a large group may appear complicated or laborious, but a thoughtful bowl of punch is your one-stop shop for delicious drinks that will keep guests refreshed for hours. Whether you’re throwing a party yourself or you’ve been elected as the holiday mixologist, you can follow this simple guide to entertain your guests with a flowing punch that suits all tastes.

Punch-making has a rich history, but many classic cocktails fell to the wayside in the second half of the 20th century, and the noble punch bowl lost its favor as cheaper, convenient trends took their place. Happily, the last twenty years have ushered in a craft cocktail renaissance and drinkers everywhere are demanding better beverages. When it comes to serving big groups, we find the world’s best bars and restaurants capitalizing on the efficiency of large-format cocktails, delivering them with the same quality and creativity as their single-serve stablemates. Meanwhile, guests are rediscovering the social atmosphere that surrounds a punch bowl, sharing the joy one ladleful at a time.

Tanqueray

There are a few rules to keep in mind when building your punch. To start, forget the frat house concoction of cheap booze with a can of frozen lemonade--that’s not a punch. Rather, let’s look at the classic punch bowls that date back hundreds of years: light, quaffable mixtures of premium spirits, fresh citrus and sugar, lightened with tea or champagne, and minimally garnished with fruit or spices. Recipe inspiration can be borrowed from some of our favorite classic cocktails, but please keep in mind a few important differences between the two. Firstly, a punch should be delicate and easy to drink, as opposed to the intensity of a stiff cocktail like a martini or an old-fashioned. Your punch could have some tartness (from fresh citrus juice) but it shouldn’t be overly sour like a gimlet or a daiquiri. I would be wary of bitter flavors (they can bloom over time), so use vermouth and Amari sparingly. Most importantly, a punch should be flavorful and refreshingly tasty at the start, middle and end of your party, so well-chilled ingredients, a big block of ice, and careful dilution will ensure success.

It must be stressed that standard cocktail recipes don’t scale up in exact proportions. Say we want to make a punch inspired by a classic gin gimlet. An individual cocktail could be made with 2 oz. of Tanqueray no. TEN gin, 1 oz of fresh lime juice, 1 oz of simple syrup, and about 1 oz of water (from shaking it with ice), so the ratio of ingredients here is 2 parts spirits, 1 part water, 1 part citrus, and 1 part sugar. This makes a delicious sour cocktail when shaken to order, but if you scaled up the recipe to the size of a punch bowl it would be too intense. Rather, we’ll aim for a lighter and refreshingly tasty punch by using 4 parts spirits, 4 parts water, 1 part citrus, and 1 part sugar. Here’s an easy rhyme to help you remember the basic ratio for a punch:

“Four of strong, four of weak, one of sour, one of sweet.” (Note that the word “weak” is referring to dilution).

Applying this rule to our gimlet recipe, we could make a balanced punch with 24 oz of Tanqueray no. TEN, 24 oz of water, 6 ounces of lime juice and 6 ounces of simple syrup.

Basil Smash

With regards to dilution and sweeteners, you may want to exercise some creativity. A light, cold-brewed tea adds more flavor than water, plus a gentle bit of tannin. In the case of our gimlet, I would opt for lemongrass or chamomile tea to compliment the gin, or a weak earl grey tea to perk up an afternoon celebration. You may split the dilution between tea and filtered water for a subtler effect. Many punch recipes, including the French 75, below, call for sparkling wine as the dilution. Using proper Champagne will get you bonus points but a brut Cava will also do the trick.

One of the best attributes of a great punch is its bright and inviting aroma, which is easily made with an oleo-saccharum (literally: “oil-sugar”). Starting with lemon, orange, blood orange or grapefruit, muddle the peels into a bag or jar of sugar and keep it sealed at room temperature for a day or two. The sugar will draw rich, aromatic oils from the skins; then you’ll add enough boiling water to create a perfumed syrup that’s citrusy and silky smooth. Alternatives to cane sugar are muscovado, jaggery, or piloncillo—each will bring a different flavor to the punch. The final aromatic touch could be a garnish of freshly grated nutmeg or cinnamon, or thinly sliced fruit. Perhaps for our gimlet punch, we’d float a few lime wheels studded with juniper or cloves.

Just a few more pointers before you get the party started. Clarity is important for aesthetics and longevity, so strain your juices and syrups before adding them to the bowl. I recommend chilling your juices, water, tea, seltzer, wine and base spirits ahead of time to prevent cracking in the ice block. Make your ice block at least 24 hours before the party by filling a 3-4 liter plastic container with filtered water (or ice and water in a pinch) and freezing it, loosely covered. The ice should be taken out of the freezer twenty minutes before mixing to temper it. Do not use standard ice cubes as they will melt too quickly. You can serve your masterpiece in traditional punch cups, teacups, cocktail glasses, rocks glasses or white wine glasses. Something with a 4-6 ounce capacity will encourage smaller servings and more socializing.

Punch Bowl

This is the year to make your holiday party a memorable one with a hand-crafted cocktail for each of your loved ones. Follow one of the recipes below or create your own using this guide, and you’ll surely entertain guests with a cheerful, flowing bowl of punch.

RECIPES

French 75 - Punch Bowl

[20-24 servings]

Directions:

  1. Chill all of the liquid ingredients in advance.
  2. Gently pour the gin, cognac, lemon juice and syrup in a punch bowl and stir to combine.
  3. Add half of the water and an ice block.
  4. Gently pour in most of the champagne.
  5. Taste the drink and add more lemon juice, syrup, water or champagne, as needed.
  6. Garnish with thin lemon wheels and/or freshly grated nutmeg.

*Oleo-Saccharum: In a medium jar or Ziploc bag, combine 1 cup of sugar with the peels of 3-4 clean lemons, oranges, blood oranges or grapefruits. Muddle the peels and shake or mix the contents so they are evenly distributed. Seal and store at room temperature for 2-3 days. Either refrigerate until needed, or add 1 cup boiling water, stir to dissolve, strain off and discard the peels, cool the syrup, and use in your punch.

Come Together - Punch Bowl

[20-24 servings]

Directions:

  1. Chill all of the liquid ingredients in advance.
  2. Pour the scotch, tea, vermouth and honey into a punch bowl and stir to combine.
  3. Add half of the water and an ice block.
  4. Taste the drink and add more honey, water or tea, as needed; you may want to add an ounce or two of lemon juice, but this shouldn’t be a sour punch.
  5. Garnish with thin lemon wheels and a handful of picked mint leaves.