Punch It Up!

A traditional European party drink is made new again.

By Katie Walker

Photography by Thomas MacDonald


how to make a delicious bowl of punchNo alcoholic beverage is better shared with friends—or potental friends—than punch; it has been consumed among companions since its beginnings in the 17th century. A good punch provides the spark that sets a gathering aglow, bringing people together over the bowl and adding an air of warmth and conviviality to a party.

Punch was first brought to Europe from India by those most dedicated of drinkers: sailors. David Wondrich, author of Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl (Perigree, 2010), says punch "most likely began its life as another sailor's improvisation, a way to get something nice to drink when you were thousands of miles away from your home port." Sailors and men stationed in India in the 17th century mixed drinks with whatever was available. Legend has it the name derives from the Hindi word for "five," panch, because of its five original ingredients: sugar, water, spirits, citrus, and spice.

The 18th century welcomed in the age of punch. Once imported to England, what started as a sailor's brew was improved upon in pubs. Punch worked its way up the rungs of society and was made with better ingredients and recipes. But, as with all things, society moved on. Liquor became palatable and no longer needed diluting. Punch was pushed to the wayside, and for the upper class, cocktails became the drink of the day.

The renewed popularity of Prohibition-era cocktails has brought with it an interest in alcoholic punch. Although from different eras, punch and cocktails share the spirit of history and the fun of experimenting with unusual recipes. As consumers rediscover the craft of drink mixing, they are dusting off their grandmothers' crystal punch bowls.

Punch can be made many different ways. But a true punch is nothing like the sherbet-and-sugared-soda concoctions many people remember. First, the proper liquor must be selected, Wondrich says. "Good spirits are important, but even more important is the right kind of spirits: You want things that are rich and full-flavored." Gin, rum, and scotch are popular choices. Then water, lemon or lime juice, sugar, and any sort of fruit or spice flavor are added. Many traditional punch recipes require some time and patience, but, "if made right," Wondrich says, "punch is smooth and delightful, and very, very easy to drink. Be warned."

Any host who has found herself chained behind a bar all night will appreciate a drink that can be premade and set out for guests to help themselves. Wondrich declares: "There's no better way of bringing together a room full of strangers and making them tipsy enough to make friends with each other."

Continue reading for tasty recipes.