Punches are the perfect communal beverage—successfully able to balance bitter, sour, and sweet flavor profiles and instantly enhance the aura of festivity.
At Evelyn Drinkery, deep in New York’s East Village, one of the summer libations that partner Christian Sanders served to parched locals was the Portobello Road Street Party Punch, created by the brand’s own Jake Burger. Mingling Portobello Road gin with Champagne, lemon, watermelon, lemon barley water, and Angostura bitters, it was crowned with an eye-catching garnish of white rose petals and fresh blueberries.
Likewise, Chicagoans slaked their thirst at the subterranean Punch House with the Fish House Jelly, a revamp of the classic Philadelphia Fish House Punch.
“We learned of the tradition of jellifying classic punch recipes dating as far back as the 1730s, and we took that idea and ran with it, adding gelatin and serving it with spiced whip and mint like a Jello Snack Pack,” says Punch House beverage manager Will Duncan. “While punch has a specific format of balancing the five flavors of strong, weak, bitter, sour, and sweet, I think people appreciate the fact that countless flavor profiles can be achieved nonetheless.”
With the chilling temperatures and festive shindigs of fall and winter fast approaching, it’s an even more apt time to showcase warm, intriguing spins on traditional punch. The concoction—combining alcohol, sugar, lemon, water, and
tea or spices—first made an imprint on cocktail culture in the early 17th century as the fortifying drink of choice among sailors. Today, thanks in part to historian David Wondrich’s hit book Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl, the festive libation makes regular appearances in myriad beverage programs around the country.
Consider RedFarm, the modern Chinese restaurant in New York City’s West Village and Upper West Side. A seemingly unlikely destination for punch, here head bartender Shawn Chen makes a holiday-perfect Farm Punch uniting apple cider, rosemary, cinnamon, and gingerbread-infused tea whiskey. “It’s elegant and refined, not cloyingly sweet,” he says. Twists on conventional flavors, such as the Farm Punch’s integration of “sweet and rounded” South African Rooibos tea, is one way of enticing guests to order it, Chen points out.
“During the holidays, many customers expect comforting drinks from bars and restaurants. Every year we hear from them over and over again that they love punches because they are so easy,” Chen explains. “They simply taste great and sell very well during the season because it gives those guests a warm welcome and puts a smile on their face.”
Jason Percival, beverage manager of Post 390 in Boston, likes making mulled wine punches in particular at this time of year because he can “get creative with bitters and spices.”
In San Diego, Anthony Schmidt, beverage director of Consortium Holdings—which includes such local lairs as Polite Provisions, Ironside, and Rare Form—also loves tinkering with spices in his punches. “In light of the popularity of Zombie cocktails, we’ve been using the cinnamon and pomegranate syrup (aka grenadine) combo a lot,” he says. “I’m way into using this with apple brandy, preferably the two-year Clear Creek. It’s young, vibrant, and tastes like crisp apples.”
This template translates just as well to hot cocktails, he explains. The hybrid of spice and a rich pat of butter leads to Hot Buttered Rum spinoffs of single-serve and large-format punches alike. “Think chai or ginger infusions with the brandy. Or, when boiling water for the cinnamon syrup add a touch of fresh lemon, maybe a hit of fresh orange, and some club soda or proper dry hard cider, and you’ve got money in the bank for holiday parties. Combining warming spices is great, but sometimes less—really focusing on one or two so guests can tell what’s what—is more,” he adds.
Fall and winter spices not only add depth and flavor to punches, but, as Schmidt points out, they also evoke childhood memories. “Anything that harkens to our youth with a simple taste is good for our business goals. We’re trying to provide an experience beyond the glass.
“We want our guests to feel more,” Schmidt continues. “Getting a buzz on is one bonus, but we’re also trying to instigate a conversation among guests. If someone is reminded of a special celebration from a sip of their drink, and consequently feels the urge to revisit that memory with friends, we are doing our job. That’s how products we make can help build community.”
Just like, say, the Negroni, Old Fashioned, and Manhattan, punch also has historic allure on its side, now rediscovered, interpreted, and savored through a contemporary lens by increasingly curious, educated drinkers.
“There is such a surge of interest in classic cocktails right now. Punches are following suit because people are starting to look back at those vintage bartending manuals and are modernizing them,” Post 390’s Percival adds.
Punch, unique because of both its past and its communal appeal, illuminates how today’s drinking culture has evolved considerably beyond one of “fast-food cocktails.” A good-looking drink will always lead to spiked profits, and punch, sitting pretty in a glass bowl, easily drives sales.
“Holiday punches are best served warm, in a big bowl, and garnished with edible flowers. It’s all about the presentation,” Percival says.
The interactive, pass-around-a-cup nature of punch is another boon. “Punch is a great way to gather with family and friends. It’s an easy sell during the holidays because folks are celebrating each other, and what better way to do so than by sharing a bowl,” Duncan says. “It’s the ideal image of togetherness, and that is most definitely what people are looking for while celebrating the holidays. It also feels a little indulgent, which is certainly synonymous with celebration.”
For Duncan the holidays are reminiscent of family and tradition. “With that in mind, we’ve developed a couple of classics we like to return to each year—those special beverages that might take a little extra effort and are enjoyed but once a year have a mystical property of evoking nostalgia,” he says. The punches prompt guests to “recall fond memories and, for fleeting moments, can take you to a happier place.”
One such example at Punch House is the Ponche Navideño, a traditional Mexican hot punch bringing together cool fruits like guava and tejocotes with cinnamon, hibiscus, and piloncillo sugar. Fittingly, this punch recipe was discovered in Pilsen, the predominantly Mexican neighborhood where the bar is located, adding yet another attractive layer of distinct personality. The Dutch Call, “a simple but shockingly flavorful” punch with gin, spiced fresh apple, lemon, and sparkling wine, is another Punch House favorite.
“Our beverage program has been 100 percent punch-focused since we opened two years ago. We know that if we’re going to continue to serve our community we have to be dynamic,” Duncan notes. “We are fortunate to have people showing up for punch, and we do not take that for granted. We’re just happy that folks are into it these days.”