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Boozy Punch Lends History and Panache to Holiday Entertaining

Former Olamaie beverage director Erin Ashford gives tips and tricks for creating batched beverages at home

Associations with fraternity parties and Kool-Aid notwithstanding, alcoholic punches have a long, fraught history rooted in the spice trade.

The earliest recorded punch recipe dates back to 1638, but according to cocktail historian David Wondrich, author of Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl, it was British sailors working for the East India Company who popularized the alcoholic concoction by utilizing accessible ingredients that still form the template for punch today: base spirit, citrus, sweetener and aromatics. It should be noted that while the term was initially used to refer to a batched beverage, “punch” has evolved to refer to a single-serving cocktail composed of the same ingredients.

Sailors drank grog during long voyages, as water was usually contaminated, and beer and wine spoiled in tropical heat. Punch, typically made with rum or arrack, became the de facto beverage of choice as a means of masking the taste of harsh spirits. It’s also believed that the addition of citrus helped prevent scurvy.

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Photo by Hannah Pemberton

Thus, punch made its way to colonial America, including the South. The southern culture of hospitality and sweltering heat led to the popular consumption of “tea punch” (per Wondrich), which eventually evolved into the non-alcoholic sweet tea that remains an indisputable part of southern foodways.

“There are strong similarities in intention and composition that govern both the cuisine of the southern United States and the making of a bowl of punch,” says Ben Robinette, the “Spirits Librarian” at Kinfolk Lounge & Library. “Every bite and sip should have a ‘more-ish’ quality, encouraging you to take another.”

Erin Ashford, former beverage director at Olamaie, knows a thing or two about Southern hospitality and punch.

“I love punch as a cocktail category because it’s so forgiving,” says Ashford. “You really can’t go wrong. Some drinks, like a martini, need to be so precise, but punch is looser when it comes to measurements and ingredients. And the punch bowl itself is a perfect vehicle to gather guests together.”

Holiday, Ashford’s first independent bar venture with business partner and former Olamaie colleague John DiCicco and former Olamaie cook Peter Klein, is slated to open on East 7th Street in mid-February. There, she plans to uphold her signature style, which is based on light, botanical and seasonal-inflected cocktails with a feminine bent.

Olamaie’s own “Lap of Luxury” punch is made with gin, brandy, meyer lemon, chamomile honey, aromatic bitters and Champagne. Photo by Jackie Klusmeyer.

That said, Ashford follows tradition when it comes to holiday punches, favoring recipes with “a fruit element as well as warm baking spices,” she explains. “Darker spirits like rye whiskey or a Jamaican rum will naturally give you those warm notes of vanilla and spice. I really love fresh juices like pomegranate or pineapple… they have fruitcake vibes.”

Sweetener is critical to a successful punch, but it’s necessary to maintain balance to avoid a cloying final product. Flavored simple syrups made with herbs, spices or fruit are ideal, but Ashford also suggests orgeat, a prepared concoction made with almonds, rosewater and sugar, or honey syrup. Liqueurs are another way to introduce sugar and vibrancy to punch.

Acid, in the form of lemon or lime juice, is frequently used to balance the acidity of punch, while bitters work to amp up the other flavors. Depending upon the profile of your punch, you can experiment with flavored bitters like orange, cardamom, mole or lavender. Consider finishing your punch with an effervescent element such as Champagne or sparkling rosé wine.

“Depending upon the distilled spirits you’re using, the variable of how carbonation can be introduced can be a point of compositional creativity,” says Robinette, “It can amplify aroma, affect texture, bitter the mixture or even serve as a secondary source of acidity.”

Photo by Jennifer Pallian

Ashford likes sparkling wines because they add “bready, yeasty notes along with some fruit and crisp citrus.” For more bite, top your punch with ginger beer or ginger ale.

Even the best punch will fall flat if your presentation isn’t up to par. Your serving vessels — punch bowl, ladle and glassware — should be just as special as the beverage. Use a family heirloom or search antique stores for vintage cut-glass, crystal and sterling silver pieces. You don’t need a matching set of glassware either. A variety of porcelain tea cups or glasses are charming and visually interesting, or hosts can opt for more inexpensive French bistro glasses. At Holiday, Ashford will continue her tradition of serving drinks, including punch, in vintage glassware, a practice she implemented at Olamaie.

Whatever recipe you choose to follow, remember that the point of serving a batched beverage is to make the party more enjoyable for the host and guests. Allow your visitors to serve themselves and give yourself the grace to spend time catching up with friends and family. That’s the true spirit of the holidays.

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Tips to punch it up!

Photo by Candice Picard

1. Prep ahead. The day before a party, make an ice mold (see below) and unflavored simple syrup, if using. The day of, pre-chill your punchbowl and assemble the punch. Just before guests arrive, top it off with any necessary finishing ingredients like Champagne or ice.

2. Don’t make fresh juices or flavored syrups until the day of in order to preserve their brilliance, says Ashford. “Once you’ve batched your punch, you can fill the serving vessel and let it rest until it’s closer to party time.”

3. To make an ice mold, use distilled water (it will freeze clear) and fill a large mold, bundt pan or container up halfway. When ready to use, allow ice to come to temperature briefly before setting it into a punch bowl to prevent it from cracking. Alternatively, purchase block ice and let it temper or have an ice bucket and scoop handy so guests can fill their own cups.

4. If you’re serving a hot punch, keep extra portable gas on hand. Consider using whole spices like star anise or cinnamon sticks as a garnish because as they warm, they’ll release fragrant compounds.

5. Garnishes highlight and amplify flavors, while also adding aesthetic appeal. In addition to citrus wheels, Ashford says dry herbs like sage, rosemary or thyme add aromatics when floated on top of punch. “Garnishes are easiest when placed directly in the bowl, including edible flowers.”

6. Prepare a non-alcoholic punch for those who choose not to imbibe, rather than just relying on soda or sparkling water.

7. As a finishing touch, consider a cake stand or elevated block of wood to hold the punch bowl. Assemble cups or glasses on a pretty placemat or table runner.