Punch-Drunk Love

The cocktail’s predecessor is bowling over the nation, one ladle at a time

Punch, in case you’ve been drinking under a rock, is everywhere. 

Cocktail programs across the country—and around the world—are ladling blended booze by the bowl. At craft cocktail lounges, it’s become commonplace to find at least one or two seasonal punch bowls of the stuff listed alongside classics. Even some forward-thinking, high-volume nightclubs have added tableside punch service in addition to, or in place of, regular bottle service.

So what’s with all the punch-drunk love? Amidst a 21st-century cocktail craze placing all things historic on a pedestal, bartenders are stirring up thousands of vintage punch recipes and adding their own renditions to the books.  

"[Punches] are basically the original cocktails."

—Max Toste of Deep Ellum 

PACKING A PUNCH

The growing popularity of punch recipes is a natural progression of the pre-Prohibition cocktail trend. The newest breed of drinkers demands new takes on historical recipes, and bartenders are happy to oblige. 

“(Punches) are basically the original cocktails,” says Max Toste of Boston’s Deep Ellum. That bar’s 1845 Pisco Punch (pisco, pineapple syrup, lemon juice and bitters) first made an appearance on the menu more than three years ago, but Toste won’t dare take it off. It’s now one of the bar’s calling cards, a punch served by the glass instead of by the bowl.

When it comes to balancing a good bowlful, five is the undisputed magic number. Punch is a blend of—count ’em—spirit, citrus, sugar, spice and water. Whether the base spirit is gin, scotch, cognac, mescal or anything in between, the other ingredients follow suit. Lemon and orange tend to work best for citrus and syrups make nice stand-ins for sugars, while stronger spices hold up to larger volume and sparkling water adds a pleasant effervescence.

Bar manager Jeremiah Jason Blake swears by the rule of five at the Holland House Bar and Refuge in Nashville, Tenn. 

For his punch, he reaches for similar-style liquors for the base—a high-proof Applejack and a smooth, brown sugar-style rum, in the case of his Maxwell Heights punch—and always aims for a flavor-packed first sip. Once the ice melts and dilutes the punch, the flavors truly open up, he says. 

At venues with heavier volume, such as Holland House Bar, pre-batched punch is a time-saver. That restaurant regularly rotates its punches—sometimes at the last minute. “When we know we’re going to be really busy, I’ll put one up on the chalkboard so when we have people waiting, we can offer a customer a $5 glass of punch quickly and easily,” Blake says. “It’s a good way to get drinks in hand without people waiting. Once they’re settling in and relaxing, they can take time to think about their next drink.”

THE PRICE OF PUNCH

Punch is priced by the bowl, and $45 to $50 seems to be the sweet spot for a batch big enough to serve at least four guests. Teardrop in Portland, Ore., offers punches—original and classic—each available as a full bowl ($50 to $56) or half ($26 to $32). 

Like Deep Ellum, several venues also ladle by the glass, usually around $9 each, such as Austin’s FINO and Speak-Easy at the Omni William Penn in Pittsburgh. 

The very act of serving spirits in bulk can cut costs—especially since punch is typically stretched with a giant melting ice cube. But there’s a delicate balance, says Dave Whitton, partner and general manager of Villains Tavern in Los Angeles. “If you don’t go through your punch on a given night, you could actually lose money,” he says. “It all depends on if you’re high volume, like we are, or you end up having to toss it.” n

Lauren Viera is a Chicago-based spirits and cocktails writer whose work appears in ImbibeMen’s JournalChicago magazine and other publications.

HISTORIC HOOCH

Punch technically predates the cocktail, as noted cocktail historian David Wondrich documents in “Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl.” It came into vogue sometime in the 16th or 17th century, likely loved by naval officers en route to various Indian subcontinents.

Somewhere along the way, folks started mixing booze with sugar and citrus and stretching it out with water; elsewhere, others added newfound regional spices. In the 1630s, the word punch made its debut, but its recipes had long been in the mix—even if they weren’t written down.

By the 18th century, colonial punch’s greatest hits were working their way back to England, and everybody got tipsy on the new trend—until cocktails stole the spotlight.