Punch Up Your Winter Celebrations
A convivial gathering place
Ahhhh…. the holidays. Theoretically a time of great enjoyment, filled with the warmth and love of friends and family. Snowfall, fireplaces, and twinkle lights set the stage and the air is filled with music and the scent of pine and spices. In practice, however, most of us end up stressed and exhausted during what could be the most wonderful time of the year. Our work schedules stay the same, but our sleep is replaced by riddles like, what does my husband’s sister-in-law want? Can I get to all three big-box stores on the way home from work, still have time to wrap presents, and be in bed before midnight? In our struggle to keep
up, we miss opportunities to take in the joys of the season.
Maybe the answer is to focus less on presents and more on being present. As adults, we manage our wants and needs as they arise, which is part of why it’s so difficult to shop for us. Instead of adding to general stress levels by centering holiday entertaining around gift-giving, why not give everybody a break and just get together to enjoy each other’s company? Put on your jazzy holiday playlist. Wear your ugly sweaters. Roll out a simple spread of award-winning Wisconsin cheeses and artisanal bread. Play holiday-themed charades. Toss a few ornaments on the table and make a bowl of punch.
Before you roll your eyes, let me be clear. I am not suggesting that your elegant snacks share real estate with ginger ale, fruit punch, and sherbet balls. I’m talking about punch in the old-school tradition of rum and cognac, fresh citrus and spices. Pretty enough to double as decoration, punch is easy to make, easier to serve, and guaranteed to bring people together.
Punch has a long and storied history, highlighted by no less a holiday figure than Charles Dickens. Dickens loved punch in his life and in his work. One of the literary masterpieces that defines the season is A Christmas Carol, and Scrooge references a mulled-wine punch called The Smoking Bishop in the play’s denouement. The backstory of punch goes deeper than Dickens, though. If you recall the tale of tonic from our spring issue, then you remember that we have British East India Company’s sailors to thank for it. Thanks again to British sailors in hot weather, we drink punch. Sailors of the Company got a ration of ten pints of beer per day, but in the subtropical colonies the beer would spoil. What’s a man to do?
The answer had nothing to do with teetotaling. The sailors blended alcohol with four other ingredients into a concoction that takes its name from an Indian word meaning “five.” The five in question? Alcohol, sweetener, citrus, water, and spice. Punch has less a strict recipe than a general guideline.
Consequently, there are as many ways to make punch as there are palates to appreciate it. Different base spirits and complementary liqueurs will produce a variety of recipes. A review of some basic recipes shows that there are a few styles, depending on how boozy you prefer your punch. For my Wisconsin friends, I’ve created a recipe that is slightly more alcohol-forward. If your friends like a lighter variety, you may add an extra bottle of sparkling cider.
Apart from being endlessly versatile, the way punch is served makes it a natural choice for home entertaining. Guests serve themselves and each other by ladling it into small cups. The punch bowl itself is a sparkling monument to conviviality, surrounded by revelers making conversation, then drifting away, then returning to make new friends with whomever is gathered there next time. If you don’t already own a punch bowl, pop into a secondhand store. I chose mine from among 10 on the shelf, for just $7.
So instead of attempting to stock your home bar with numerous bottles and mixers, spending a fortune and hoping you’ve remembered everything, just buy a few bottles of booze and mix up some punch. Like most things in life, the quality of your ingredients will be reflected in the finished product, so raise your eyes off the bottom shelf when you’re standing at the liquor store. Your holiday punch is not wapatoolie.
One last thing to bear in mind is the importance of the ratio of alcohol in relation to the other ingredients. Remember that punch was originally a replacement for beer, and that you want your guests to enjoy its subtle effects. In practice, your punch will probably level off at about 20% alcohol-by-volume (ABV). Holiday drinking is a marathon, not a sprint, so pace your guest accordingly.
To make your own holiday punch, you’ll need a few minutes at the liquor store, a few minutes at the grocery, and about an hour at home. You will need:
- 1 bottle Roaring Dan’s Maple-flavored rum
- 1 bottle Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao
- 1 bottle PAMA Pomegranate liqueur (you’ll have some left over)
- 1 bottle Island Orchard brut apple cider
- 24 oz. cranberry juice
- The zest of 1 each lemon, lime, grapefruit and orange
- 8 slices of fresh ginger
- 3 cinnamon sticks
- 1 bag of frozen cranberries
- 1.5 c. sugar
Up to one week ahead of your party, combine the citrus zests, a handful of the frozen cranberries, and the ginger in a bowl with the sugar. Cover and let it sit overnight. The oils from the zests and the juice from the fruit will soften and flavor the sugar. The next day, pour two cups of hot water into the bowl to melt the sugar, and then strain out the solids. Pour this infused syrup into a clean jar and refrigerate until you’re ready to assemble your punch.
The night before you’ll entertain, combine the rum, curaçao, and half the pomegranate liqueur. Add the cinnamon sticks and half the cranberry juice. Cover and let stand overnight. Pour the remaining cranberry juice into a small container with 8 oz. water and a handful of the frozen cranberries. Freeze this. Just before your guests arrive, turn the ice mold out into your punch bowl. Remove the cinnamon sticks from the punch and and slowly pour it over the ice.
Then step back, take a deep breath, and relax.