Set a large bowl filled with punch in the center of a party and step back. Watch the merrymakers gather, the conversation flow and the awkward moments be thwarted through the offering of another ladleful.
This, after all, is the magic of a great punch, and, while punch’s exact origins remain unknown, revelers have enjoyed it since at least the 17th century and usually with a base formula of spirit (brandy, rum, whiskey, gin, arrack), sugar, citrus and spice.
Though preparing a punch is simple, it’s not a last-minute, thrown-together affair.
“Just like you would prep your meal, prep your drink,” said Jillian Vose, the former beverage director and bar manager at the Dead Rabbit, and the owner of Hazel and Apple, opening in Charleston, S.C., next year. “Make a checklist. Is my ice prepared? Do I have backup punch? Do I have enough sugar and citrus to fix any imbalances? Do I have enough of the soda or sparkling wine that I’m using to top?”
A deeply flavored, more complex punch starts with a citrus-and-sugar combination called oleo-saccharum: citrus peels (no white pith, please) muddled with sugar and allowed to sit for a few hours or preferably overnight for maximum infusion. “The oils give it another layer of flavor and brightness that you wouldn’t get just from citrus juice on its own,” Ms. Vose said.
From there, combine your oleo-saccharum with citrus juice and your spirit of choice, as well as water and other mixers to dilute the punch to drinkable levels.
Speaking of water, a punch truly isn’t finished without a frozen block (or blocks) of ice, which, with a little planning, is especially easy to make. Freeze filtered water in a Bundt pan (preferably silicone, though metal also works), an angel food cake pan, loaf pan, plastic quart container or even a bowl. Set in the bowl, the large block will melt leisurely, keeping punch chilled for hours. And should you decide to stud your ice with decorations, make them edible: citrus slices, seasonal berries and fruit, edible flowers, fresh herbs.
A decorated block of ice will shine in the classic Philadelphia Fish House punch, which dates to the early 18th century and blends rum, Cognac and peach brandy. Finished with a grating of nutmeg, it fits in with any and all holiday crowds.
Or serve the more modern Mezcal Royale punch, featuring a few ounces of the rich yet bright combination of mezcal, blanc vermouth and Cognac. A final festive splash of sparkling red wine nods to traditional Champagne punches.
You can also skip the spirits altogether and mix up a tea-based nonalcoholic smoky citrus punch. The smoky, bubbly blend of lemon-orange oleo-saccharum, Lapsang souchong tea, soda and tonic waters tastes as though it packs a boozy punch.
A final tip, if your bowl isn’t big enough to hold a full batch of punch, don’t stress. Serve the punch in half batches, refilling the bowl and even adding a fresh ice block as needed throughout the evening.
“Going back to refill your glass or filling each other’s glasses is kind of the point,” Ms. Vose said.
For all its pageantry, punch makes a host’s life easier, and it’s a festive way to serve a large group at once, freeing you to join guests in the punch bowl’s merry orbit and actually enjoy the party.
Recipes:Classic Philadelphia Fish House Punch | Mezcal Royale Punch | Nonalcoholic Smoky Citrus Punch
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