Reviving Punch’s Traditional Tools

As punch continues to regain popularity, so, too, do the tools that accompany it. Chloe Frechette on the history of punch gear and how David Wondrich and Cocktail Kingdom are bringing it back for a modern audience.

Where making cocktails can demand an arsenal of tools to achieve correct proportions and presentation, punch requires only the bowl in which it’s built, a vessel for drinking and a ladle for serving—the drink equivalent of a one-pot dinner.

It’s this simplicity, however, that partly led to punch’s fall from grace at the end of the 19th century. With its infinite variability, the cocktail suited the rise of individualism in the 20th century; each round at the bar presented an opportunity to display personal nuance (make it a double, on the rocks with a twist, please).

But, ironically, the very success that enabled cocktails to steal the show from punch in the first place has since paved the way for its imminent return. “Punch,” writes S.S. Field in The American Drink Book, “is still the only sensible solution to the problem of ceremoniously quenching large numbers of the citizens”—a sentiment as true now as when written in 1953, both in the bar and the home.

With the return of punch, the same forces that revived the full assortment of cocktail accoutrements—from diamond-cut mixing glasses to Japanese-style jiggers—have also hastened the return of punch’s few accessories, from the requisite bowl to the indispensable ladle.

The central tenets of the flowing bowl are reflected in the simplicity of the tools required for service. Punch cups, small two- to three-ounce vessels, invite multiple rounds, allowing the ritual of serving or being served. The bowl, a symbol of community and bounty, typically ranges in size from one quart to five gallons, though history is studded with stories of bowls that are even larger; in one such instance, detailed in David Wondrich’s Punch, an English admiral stationed in Spain proffered hundreds of gallons’ worth of punch, served not in a bowl, but rather, a fountain, to commemorate a 1694 Christmas Day feast. (So excessive was the quantity and vessel that the drink was reportedly doled out to guests by a little boy riding a boat through the brandy-filled reservoir.)

Certainly, the virtues and vices of the punch bowl have been extolled countless times. However, the ladle, the object responsible for keeping the “flowing bowl” flowing, is often overlooked, despite it being just as much an object of design as of function. Often made with wooden or whalebone handles to accommodate hot drink temperatures, English ladles were frequently formed with a shilling set into their basins but tended to be otherwise simple, round and silver; their French counterparts favored more baroque, scalloped bowls with pour spouts on either end.

These traditional ladles, along with their corresponding punch sets, are ripe for revival, a point that’s been noted by both Wondrich and Greg Boehm of Cocktail Kingdom, who, together, have been working on a forthcoming line of historic punch paraphernalia.

“I’ve always said that I need more punch gear,” explains Wondrich. “And not that weird, fanciful stuff that you use in homes … the shit that was actually used in bars.”

Though sometimes gentle competitors, Wondrich and Boehm share a mutual interest in high-quality, functional barware. The collection—which also includes bowls, cups and nutmeg graters—includes two silver-plated, wooden-handled ladles, based on a 20th-century French example featuring a fluted bowl with pour spouts and a Georgian-era English style (like the one pictured above, created for Banks), which is smaller with a simple, elegant oval base. Both are inspired by historic ladles from Wondrich’s personal collection.

“We thought, let’s kick it up a notch and try to use the original materials and do it, cost be damned,” says Wondrich. In a nod to the moralizing nature of 18th-century punch bowls, which commonly warned of the dangers of overindulgence, their ceramic rendition will offer its own as-yet undisclosed cautionary scene at the bottom of the bowl.

The duo also plan to offer at least one purely modern upgrade, offering their punch cups in polycarbonate for poolside drinking. Asked why, Wondrich offers a simple explanation: “Why wouldn’t you, right?”