Punch makes for a festive occasion no matter when you serve it, but September 20 is cause for special celebration: It’s National Punch Day. At Punch Bowl Social—an ever-growing, multi-city franchise of one-stop entertainment shops that boast bars, full-service kitchens, bowling alleys, arcades, karaoke parlors, and much more under one roof—that counts as a national holiday. In fact, it counts as a pre-national holiday, according to beverage director Patrick Williams: “Before America, there was punch. Punch predates refrigeration and ice. It’s one of the oldest forms of cocktail.”
Granted, beyond that, its history is somewhat murky; no less an expert than cocktail historian David Wondrich, who wrote the definitive book on the subject, has expressed doubts about the purported etymology of the word. But whether accurate or not, it’s certainly useful, as Williams explains: “Punch” perhaps derived from the Hindi or Sanskrit term for “five,” in reference to the drink’s key elements—sour, sweet, strong, and weak in a 1:1:3:4 ratio, plus a dash of spice.
“Sour is typically citrus, either lemon or lime juice,” he says. “Sweet is your sugar or your syrup.” Strong, of course, is booze, and “weak is water, tea, sparkling wine—something to stretch the drink and make it large-format.”
In modern practice, of course, the recipe varies. Williams himself prefers to start with a 1:1:2:3 ratio, generally “balancing sweet and sour ingredients first, then adding the strong component, then incrementally adding the weak one.” But now and then inspiration trumps formula.
Take the Watermelon Polo Bowl, which began with a sip of Teakoe’s watermelon-spearmint tea. “It’s really complex and juicy,” he says, bringing to mind “how people in the South salt their watermelon. So I thought of reposado tequila, which can have a kind of briny essence.” Next came the sour component: “Shrubs add such great acidity, though it comes from a different place than citrus. We use a watermelon shrub made with fresh watermelon, apple-cider vinegar, and sugar, as well as a little bit of lime juice.” Finally, he incorporated housemade strawberry syrup for sweetness. The result “is a beautiful pinkish-red color, but it’s still a punch that packs a punch.”
Or take the It’s a Mer-Man’s World, based on Williams’s detection of “really subtle tropical-fruit notes in bourbon. I wanted to pull them out, because people expect punch to be a little tropical.” He supplements the whiskey with a splash of eight-year-old rum, whose “richness and sweetness help take that it to that place.” Pineapple-papaya tea and lime juice lighten and brighten the booze, while both sweetness and spice come into play via the use of cardamom syrup, in lieu of the more-classic nutmeg or cinnamon.
Following those examples, here are a few tips for creating your own punch.
Start with tried-and-true flavor combinations. “You know tequila and lime juice work well together, so build a punch off of that,” Williams suggests, or experiment with your favorite sangria recipe. You could also rely on unflavored vodka as a neutral starting point. Just save the extra-pungent stuff, such as Scotch, for more advanced experimentation: Though Williams has tried it, he admits “it was tricky to pull off. Some things, like really aggressive single-malt, are better to drink on their own.”
Choose your ice and serving vessel carefully. If your punch is on the lighter side, Williams says, you’d do well to serve it from a bowl containing an ice block, “so it dilutes more slowly. You want that last sip to be just as good as the first.” Conversely, if it’s potent, you can serve it over ice cubes, whether from an antique bowl—Punch Bowl Social sources much of its servingware from thrift shops—or a more “slick, contemporary” bottle.
Most important, taste as you go. “Make a small recipe and test it out before pouring in a whole bottle of booze,” Williams laughs. That said, rest assured that punch is pretty forgiving as recipes go. “At the end of the day, if you’re balancing out sweet and sour, strong and weak, you’ve got a pretty good punch. That’s the exclamation point on the whole thing.”
Ruth Tobias is a longtime food-and-beverage writer based in Denver, Colorado. To learn more about her and her work, please visit her website, RuthTobias.com, or follow her @denveater on Twitter and Instagram.