Article by Jason Rogers
Hey, how are you? You doing alright? Chances are if you are reading this when it comes out you have been a part of a world-shaking event, a global pandemic (I know it’s scary to think about). You have been hibernating for weeks, maybe even months, and hopefully, soon you can step outside your cave of protection. For me, being trapped inside has made me hunger for social interaction and revelry with friends. After a long time of thinking, the best way to unite with your fellow man is with something you can share and enjoy together. When it comes to drinking, there is no better vehicle than a punch.
So, you hear punch and maybe some of you think of giant fishbowl looking glass filled with fruity sodas and a ton of vodka (if you’re lucky) and, although you can share that, it isn’t really that exciting, right? Well, my sunlight-starved friend, punch actually has a rich history and is much more than a giant sprite and vodka for you to guzzle.
The history and etymology of punch can possible be traced back to India/East Asia. The word punch is believed to have come from the Hindi word (pāñć) paunch, which represents 5 and, in the case of punch, the 5 components of the drink. The act of making punch, like many classic cocktails is murky, possible concocted by sailors in the British East India Company, looking for a replacement to beer, which fared worse in the climate, or to help with less pleasant spirits of the time. We are unsure about the origins, but we do have a basic template for a punch.
The 5 magic ingredients are:
- Water (more important than you think)
So, let’s break these bad boys down in an easy way.
The classic punches of the day used bold and flavorful dark spirits like Jamaican rums, cognac, or arrack (a spirit derived from sugar can or coconut sap typically produced in the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia). They give punch some weight and a full bodied mouth feel when you sip it. They are a great way to add complexity to your bunch, but not the only way. In modern punches gin, whisky, and tequila are not uncommon, even blending the two isn’t crazy if you know what you are doing. Most punches, whether new or old, use 1-2 different base spirits for their punch. Easy choices to get here in China would be:
- Whisk(e)y = Jack Daniels, Jameson or Jim Beam
- Gin = Bombay, Beefeater or Gordon’s
- Rum = Bacardi Black or Havana Club 7yr
- Cognac/Brandy = Courvoisier or Hennessy (VS or VSOP)
- Tequila = Olmeca or Jose Quervo (Silver or Gold)
If you want to be a little more experimental, try using a blended scotch like Ballantine’s or Johnnie Walker or even give it a Chinese spin with Baijiu. Vodka doesn’t add much as a base except strength but flavored vodkas could be of use later. At the end of the day just play with whatever you can get your hands on (or should I say, delivered).
One of the great pillars of the cocktail world, citrus once again, plays a key role in making these drinks. Now for the type of citrus your choices are endless, anything with some sour component is usable. But it’s how citrus is used that takes this drink from party pleaser to cocktail aficionado. The simple way to add citrus to your punch is juice, whether fresh squeezed or from a bottle, punch is pretty forgiving but if you want to take it to the next (more time consuming, which could be good) level, then you need to peel the rinds of your citrus (like lemon and orange) into your punch vessel and muddle them with sugar. Muddle means to firmly press the rinds or fruit to release their oils but not crush everything to a pulp. Much like with tiki drinks, you can use a mix of juices/rinds or just one and the punch will be great, it depends on your taste. Common choices right now would be lemon and orange for rinds and juice, or any other citrus juice you can purchase.
Sweet, it’s needed because this punch could possible pack a punch, both with flavor or strength so you need some sweet to balance things. Your sweet can come from many options, from plain white sugar, to a sweet liqueur (think Malibu or Schnapps), sweet wines like Moscato, sodas like sprite or even flavored vodkas like Skyy and Absolut. You want to add sweetness for balance but also you can add new flavors that go well together, just taste your ingredient and think, “oh, that tastes good together.” One tip, steer clear of using cream or cream based liqueurs, the citrus will make your punch curdle and that just won’t be fun. As for recommendations, use whatever you like or you can get your hands on, this is part of the fun of punch. Combine different things and see what you like in a small cup then move up to your punch when you like it.
Also like Tiki drinks, spice plays a special part in punch drinks, helping to give depth and bring the drink alive (think cinnamon and ginger). When it comes to spice you don’t want to overdo it, think a pinch not a pound. When using spice in your punch you have a lot of options. You can use ground spices like cinnamon or nutmeg, ginger beer which also adds bubbles, syrups or liqueurs like fireball or Jagermeister (a way to get rid of that bottle) or just use whole spices in the punch like star anise or whole cloves. Remember to use what’s available to you, ginger is super cheap and easy to obtain so that always a place to start.
The essence of life, water, it seems like a simple part of punch but it’s a lot more than cooling your drink. First you water can come in a few forms; hot, cold (ice) or as tea and wine. Let’s start with the easiest; hot. If you want to serve the drink hot and have something like a toddy, just use hot water. Next is cold or ice in this case but you don’t want to just throw small cubes in there. You want a large piece of ice, this will make the ice melt slower so that it doesn’t over dilute the drink. To do this you can just freeze two large bowls (about 12 oz.) of water in your freezer. Finally you can use tea or wine, my preferred method. Most classic punches used black teas (Ceylon, earl grey, etc.) or sparkling wine to add some tannins and bitter to balance the whole punch. That being said, you can use any tea or wine you have and have a great punch, including herbal teas, red or rose wines. Ginger tea, Rooibos tea, Earl Grey, whatever tea bags you happen to have just brew a nice pot and add it either hot or cold depending on how you want to serve it. Wine just pour in a bottle of still or sparkling and usually red is used for fall winter punches and white for spring summer.
Now it’s time to bring all these elements together in a beautiful bowl. When making punch you do have a lot of wiggle room. You can combine a lot of flavors or a few and make something great, the idea is to get the amounts right. Now the good news is you don’t need a big bowl for punch, you can use a pitcher or even just a large pot. Needless to say your amounts will vary so you need to have a good ratio. The old saying from Barbados; One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong (base spirit), four of weak (water), can be applied here. For spice which doesn’t show up you can combine it with sweet or weak depending on what spice you have and using whole spices works. Here is an easy cocktail to try.
1 part Sour (Orange and Lemon Juice)
2 parts Sweet (Malibu)
3 parts Strong (Bacardi Black and Jack Daniels)
4 parts Weak (Cinnamon Black Tea)*
*Just steep 2-3 broken sticks of cinnamon and two tea bags for 3-5 minutes, then remove the bags and let the cinnamon steep another 5 minutes then remove cinnamon.
In a large container, add all ingredients and stir. Let chill for an hour before your guest arrive and add a large piece of ice before serving.
Like I said you can put this in any large container you like and let you friends serve themselves so they have a chance to mingle again. Punch allows for a lot of different combinations so use whatever you have lying around and see how it works. Also don’t forget to taste as you mix and punch doesn’t have to a culinary art, have fun. Maybe have friends bring over random bottles and make a punch together. Just remember to be thankful to have them around and to have something nice to share. Cheers and stay safe everyone.
Jason Rogers is a mixologist extraordinaire living in Xi’an.