Damien Woolnough talks to booze gurus about why the classic batch-mixed cocktail is once again in vogue
Ahead of the race that stops a nation, DAMIEN WOOLNOUGH talks to booze gurus about why the classic batch-mixed cocktail is the toast of party season and the secret weapon of home-entertaining.
The revival of punch is giving bartenders a reason to smile as cocktails finally join food and feelings as something we’re encouraged to share in public. Order a cosmopolitan, a manhattan or a mojito at a crowded bar and you’ll be greeted with a fixed grin, but pick punch and watch the seasoned mixologist’s white-knuckle grip on the muddling stick relax.
“For the past few years bartenders have been pushing it to the limit with drinks, so this is part of a return to focusing on key ingredients and simplicity,” says Peter Hollands, brand ambassador for Bacardi-Martini Australia. “It also helps that it’s a drink that brings people together. Sharing drinks is like sharing food.
“The real force driving its popularity is home-entertaining. No one wants to spend the whole party making drinks for guests, so punch is a simple solution.”
It’s the element of ease that has Tai Tate,wine buyer for Sydney’s Unicorn and Lansdowne hotels, cup in hand and on board. “I love punch because I don’t like making things a million times,” Tate says. “You just keep filling your cup.”
Self-proclaimed connoisseurs might confuse punch with memories of high-school concoctions of super-sweet lemonade and leftover spirits from their parents’ drinks cupboard, but the drink’s history stretches well beyond Gen-X and baby-boomer imbibers.
British sailors in the 17th century were the hipsters of the high seas,wearing full-sleeve tattoos and travelling to exotic locales. While visiting India and Indonesia these adventurers began drinking punch as an alternative to warm beer in tropical climates, creating clever concoctions with souvenired spices.
The term ‘punch’ is believed to come from the Sanskrit word for five, ‘pancha’, referring to the five ingredients required. A punch should have something sweet, sour, strong, spicy and weak.
“The term ‘punch’ could also come from ‘puncheon’, a word for a drinking vessel,” says Garth Foster, brand ambassador for Möet Hennessy. “Let’s face it, sailors were notoriously illiterate but at least they knew how to drink.”
Illiteracy might have something to do with the recipe for a rum punch being kept simple enough for a rhyme that’s almost as popular in Barbados as Rihanna. ‘One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong and four of weak.A dash of bitters and a sprinkle of spice. Serve well chilled with plenty of ice.’
When the drink was embraced by the British aristocracy, things started to get complicated.The first degree of difficulty came with the introduction of the mysterious-sounding shrub.
“A shrub is a concentrated syrup that combines fruit, sugar and vinegar,” Tate says. “It can add complexity to a drink when used with deft moderation. Go heavy-handed, however, and it will turn you into a wincing mess.”
Complexity is fine for a wine, but Hollands went straight to the top and discovered the impressive-sounding shrub isn’t a necessary addition to your punch shopping list.
“Just stick to the key ingredients,” Hollands says. “I checked with Dale DeGroff, the man who popularised the cosmopolitan and is considered the godfather of modern bartending.
“According to DeGroff, using vinegar in punch drinks is not the original way. Citrus was used instead. Sweetness can be added with a lemon or lime syrup.”
The popularity of expensive spices helped bring the aristocracy on board, who were able to splash out on cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg,which all found their way into punch recipes.
For a subtler approach, tea works as the weak component of a punch recipe.
“Play around with different teas,” Hollands says. “Just walk through a T2 store for inspiration. It’s what a lot of bartenders do for a creative jump-start.”
Foster suggests looking for the herbaceous black teas.
Another punch accessory favoured by the aristocracy was the punchbowl. During the streamlined ’90s and noughties, kitsch punchbowls were objects of derision, but in the 18th and 19th centuries the likes of Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria broke out the punchbowl at parties.
A grand 226-kilo punchbowl sits in The Royal Collection, having been converted from a wine cooler by crafty Queen Victoria in 1842 for the christening of Prince Albert Edward.
Foster suggests something less ostentatious for summer parties.
“You can just mix the ingredients in a giant carafe and let people serve themselves,” he says. “You don’t need a punchbowl for it to be a punch.”
Hollands, however, embraces tradition. “I’m always asked by people whether they should have a cocktail station at their parties.That’s fine if your friends are well behaved.After a drink my friends tend to get messy so a big bowl is an easy and practical option.”
A generous punchbowl allows you to keep things cool by using a giant block of ice as the weak ingredient of your punch. “People pay attention to the strong part of the recipe, the booze, but also need to think about the weak,” Hollands says.
“If you’re not keen on tea just freeze some water in a Tupperware container overnight.This will ensure that you have a cold, instead of watery, drink throughout the night.”
Give tinned fruit a miss, but fresh cherries, herbs or slices of citrus work a treat as garnishes.
“Just keep things simple and light,” he says. “It’s the drink that can be enjoyed by everyone, especially the host.” Looking for punch recipes for summer merrymaking? Head to delicious.com.au.