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Summer parties call for something different: punch

G.M. Gurton’s Communal Punch, served at The Dead Rabbit  in New York City.
Photo: Gabi Porter
G.M. Gurton’s Communal Punch, served at The Dead Rabbit in New York City.

Done right, punch could be the cocktail star of your next party.

Push aside your preconceptions. Crafted punches are an entirely different drink than those liquor cabinet mash-ups from college, or the fruit juice and sparkling wine combos Mom might have made for family gatherings. Today's offerings—which as proving popular menu additions at craft bars—are more like fine cocktails, multiplied.

"A lot of people associate punch with frat parties," said Jack McGarry, bar manager for The Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog in New York. "That was one of the biggest challenges we faced." So visitors to the bar, which has an award-winning historically based menu, get a complimentary serving of punch to get them used to the idea of it as a serious option.

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Some of the most popular punches you'll see on the menu take a page from recipes that have been around for centuries.

"Before punch became the name for anything in a bowl, it was a specific class of ingredients," said David Wondrich, author of "Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl," which many bartenders credit for reviving interest in the drink. "By the middle of the 1700s, everybody knew exactly how to make it."

Variations abound, but the basic formula is as follows: A bottle or two of a very flavorful spirit, usually cognac or dark rum. Water or tea. Oleo-saccharum, which cocktail historian Derek Brown of Southern Efficiency in Washington, D.C., describes as compounded lemon sugar. "You take and muddle or press lemon peels into sugar until it creates a sweet paste," he said. And a little spice. "Nutmeg was the king of punch spices," said Wondrich, who is also on the advisory board for Liquor.com.

The result—then, as now—was meant to be a drink that's less boozy than a cocktail; something you'd have several glasses of. That can make it an ideal party choice, both for taste and logistics.

"You're able to serve six to 10 people all at the same time," said mixologist Lacy Hawkins of The NoMad and Clover Club, both in New York. (See Hawkins' recipe and video tutorial for Golden Bear Punch, below.) "It's a lot harder to make a bunch of single cocktails for your friends."

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Drink up

Making a decent punch has a few tenets in common with crafting a good cocktail, but there are some distinct dos and don'ts for home mixologists.

For starters, use a recipe rather than winging it. That's an expensive misstep. "The last thing you want to do is just grab some stuff and pour it in together," said Brown. "Especially when you're talking about emptying out three or four bottles of booze into a bowl."

There's still plenty of room to get creative. McGarry tweaks the basic formula with one summer punch, using blended Irish whiskey, green tea (instead of black), coconut water (instead of water), bitters, nutmeg and an oleo-sacchrum made with limes.

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Almost anything goes for spirit choice. Traditional punches often call for rum or cognac, but a Dutch genever, bourbon or Irish whiskey works really well, too, said Wondrich.

Inexpensive spirits or sparkling wines are fine so long as you enjoy the taste. "It should be something you'll sit down and drink a glass of," said Brown. Punch won't mask bad cheap spirits or liquor cabinet holdouts that are undrinkable solo.

For best results, make the punch at least a few hours before you party. It'll taste even better. "You need to give punch time to settle," said McGarry.

And don't make the mistake of using ice cubes. Most punch recipes are already somewhat diluted, said Wondrich, so go with a big hunk or two of ice (freeze water in plastic food containers for blocks, or for a ring, a bundt pan).

Mixologist Lacy Hawkins created the Golden Bear Punch for parties.
Photo: Andrew Kist
Mixologist Lacy Hawkins created the Golden Bear Punch for parties.

Golden Bear Punch

  • 12 cucumber slices
  • 18 oz. Hangar 1 Vodka
  • 12 oz. Cocchi Barolo Chinato
  • 6 oz. Verjus
  • 6 oz. Lime juice
  • 6 oz. honey syrup (2 parts honey, 1 part water)
  • 12 oz Sparkling wine

Place a large ice block in a punch bowl and add all the ingredients except the sparkling wine. Stir, and top with the sparkling wine. Serve in punch cups, garnished with extra cucumber slices.

Credit: Lacy Hawkins