Spirits: Knockout Punch

Turn a party foul into a party fave

Forget about 7-Up, floating sherbet mounds and — for those with fraternities on their résumés — buckets of fruit and grain alcohol. Punch — the real deal — is poised to become the next big thing in cocktail culture, thanks to Esquire booze scribe David Wondrich, who’s released a 296-page book dedicated to the subject just in time for your head-on collision with holiday entertaining.

I’ll leave the long, colorful and oft-disputed history to Wondrich’s exhaustively and wonderfully authoritative Punch (Penguin, $24); suffice it to say, the beverage has been around in one form or another for at least 400 years. It was originally a mixture of citrus, sugar, water, spirits and spice, but over time became bastardized and too-sweet. Wondrich bypasses such treacle to focus on the classics, like his recipe for Philadelphia Fish House Punch, which originated at the Schuylkill Fishing Club in 1732.

The beauty of punch at home — besides its ability to generate quick alcohol-fueled conversation and conviviality — is that it takes pressure off you, the host, who should be free to roast the goose and plate the canapés. “You don’t have to spend your whole party shaking up cocktails,” says Wondrich. “You can do it all in advance.”

For starters, you’ll need a bowl. We’ve found three that will do the trick in style (see slideshow below). For something with more retro-zing (and a lower price tag), check your local vintage or thrift shop — though Wondrich points out that he’s used “those five-gallon iced-tea things, and even just a pot.” Next, make yourself a block of ice, which is simple enough to do; fill an empty half-gallon milk carton with water and freeze it overnight. Don’t use the household stuff. It melts too quickly, and the block will look more fetching.

For Philly’s own Fish House Punch, one of Wondrich’s favorites, about an hour before guests arrive (hopefully with generous gifts in hand), dissolve 1 pound sugar in 2 cups lemon juice. Add 3 ½ quarts filtered water, 3 cups dark rum, 1 ½ cups cognac and 1 ½ cups peach brandy. (Hey, no one said good punch comes cheap!) Slide in your ice block to cool the punch. Makes about 25 cups.
If it seems odd to dilute your potent mixture with so much water, Wondrich promises this is the way to go. “Punch is better when it’s somewhat diluted,” he says. “It leads to longer parties.”