Punch is, no doubt, the O.G. cocktail—or the “monarch of mixed drinks,” in the words of cocktail historian and Punch author David Wondrich. The simple large-format formula of spirit, sugar, water, spice and citrus has been a staple of the drink world since at least the 17th century, when British sailors allegedly brought the elixir (much easier to transport than beer) back from their travels to India. The “product of the collision of the European colonial powers with the bounteous exotic agriculture of Asia,” as eloquently described in The Dead Rabbit Drinks Manual, punch was a reflection of the age of exploration and colonization, a marriage of new ingredients, like tea and spices, with more familiar spirits from the Western world.
The flowing bowl was welcomed into Europe with drunken affection, and doled out to the masses as a symbol of celebration and togetherness. In fact, there was once a time when punch was as closely associated with celebrations as Champagne is today—making it little wonder that it became so closely entwined with the holiday season.
Amidst the craft cocktail renaissance, that tradition is being embraced anew, yielding brand-new takes on the classic punch formulas and improvements on the recipes of yore.
Brooklyn’s Prime Meats has become the ideal place with which to pay homage to punch’s great resurrection. Every day, a new recipe is created by the opening bartender on staff based on “seasonal ingredients, syrups or tinctures at hand and even the weather,” says bartender Jeff Galli. Galli’s very own So Long, Sweet Summer—a combination of gin, blood orange, Cocchi Americano and peach-cinnamon shrub—was inspired by New York’s unseasonably mild December. The effect, he says, is “to remind you of Christmas and a long summer night, all at once.”
Out West, Caitlin Laman of San Francisco’s Trick Dog relies on a base of two quintessential punch ingredients—tea and brandy—in her Dorothy’s Delight, which she brings squarely into the 21st century with coffee liqueur and savory oloroso sherry for a rich, smoky punch ideal for kicking off an evening. (Also good for getting the party started? “Make sure to drink the remainder of the oloroso as you are making the punch,” says Laman.)
Just across town, Martin Cate of Smuggler’s Cove has taken the bar’s popular Spiced Hibiscus Punch—itself a version of the drink that appears on tables throughout the Caribbean over the holidays—and upped the ante with his Hibiscus Punch Royale, which incorporates a hefty pour of chilled Champagne and preserved hibiscus flowers. It’s a prime party-starter based on looks alone.
Meanwhile, in Chicago, Punch House‘s Dustin Drankiewicz goes truly new-school with his Smoochin’ Under the Clock Tower. Inspired by a popular Middle Eastern dessert called Balah El Sham (a churro-like pastry made with walnuts, honey and fruit), Drankiewicz’s punch combines smoky reposado, bright pineapple juice and savory kümmel, which gets added depth from walnut-lemon oleo-saccharum.
Across the pond, it’s sometimes harder to shake those deep-rooted punch traditions. Amidst a heady mix of new and old on the menu at London’s Punch Room, bar manager Davide Segat represents with an English classic: the Hannah Wooley Punch (1672), one of the oldest published punch recipes. Updated ever so slightly with heady Barolo Chinato, this combination of old-school and new embodies the best flavors of the holiday season.
Beyond their ability to foster high jinks like none other, there is another thing these drinks all have in common: “Punch is forgiving,” says Galli, “if it isn’t quite right, add a little more of something it needs until it meets your vision.”