Nothing unites a gang of new and old friends like a shared task, be it raising a barn or cleaning up a park—or simply getting to the bottom of a bowl of punch.
And by punch, I don’t mean the kind of thing your fraternity brother or sorority sister in charge of ethanolization used to make. Real punch, the kind people fixed back when it was the King of Mixed Drinks, is a refreshing, balanced, sophisticated and thoroughly serious affair, made according to time-tested rules from quality ingredients. Fortunately, those rules are simple and the ingredients widely available.
Here are five tips to filling the bowl with aplomb, one for each of punch’s canonic elements: spirits, citrus, sugar, water and spice.
While you can make punch out of any liquor, the most successful ones tend to call for the old-fashioned, pot-distilled variety: cognac; the funky, rich rums for which Jamaica used to be famous; single malt Scotch; things of that ilk. No matter where the alcohol is from, though, it should be full-flavored and high-proof, as it will have to stand up to a lot of dilution.
The sour element is the essence of punch. So, add lemon or lime juice, as fresh as you can squeeze it, to the tune of one cup for every quart of spirits. But one of the few true secrets of punch-making is to incorporate the oil in lemon peels (lime peels are usually too bitter), which contributes a great depth of flavor. The easiest way to do this is to muddle the peels of four lemons (use a vegetable peeler to remove them from the fruit) with each cup of sugar you use and let it sit for three or four hours: This will wick out the sweet oil.
Use enough. Punch is not a cocktail; you’re meant to have multiple small cups as you chat with your friends, which means it should be about the strength of sherry. I like to start with the same quantity of water as spirits, plus an additional 25 percent—so 40 ounces of water for every quart of booze. Oh, and there’s ice, too: a quart-sized block (freeze a bowl or other container of water overnight) will keep that much punch cool without melting too quickly.
Don’t overdo it; you want people to taste the punch, not the spice. I enjoy a simple grating of fresh nutmeg over the bowl (about a third of a nutmeg seed should do). Others like to play with cordials, bitters and infusions, which are fine if used sparingly.