What To Drink This Week: Punchy edition

It may feel a bit silly to be saying this, but in the world of drinking, the cocktail is a relatively new invention — not quite two hundred years on the scene now.

I know, I know.  Canada isn’t quite two hundred years on the scene either, though people haven’t been been boiling my country to figure out ways to get squiffy since the dawn of civilization… I don’t think.  But for a very long time, alcohol of any variety was a mass-produce/mass-consume kind of an affair.  As we know from previous trips down memory lane, entire economies were built around the large-scale manufacture of insanely popular liquors.  Barrels were loaded onto ships, kegs were delivered to estates, and if one wished to dilute their potency or enhance their flavor… why, one did it by the bowlful at the very least.  Thus, the power of punch.

Anyone who’s watched any version of a Christmas Carol knows how absolutely nuts the family went over two servings of the neighborhood’s best gin punch, and that’s for a reason — in order to blend a good one, a punch requires some not-inconsiderable additives.  Sugar, fresh fruit and even clean water were none of them commonplace in Victorian London, and one didn’t have the luxury of plastic wrap and a fridge to save up the leftovers.

When you cut a lime, by God, you used that lime!  FOR THE QUEEN!

Remember: Wasted limes waste Limeys. Do it for Her Royal Highness.

It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution hit full-steam in North America that technologies like iceboxes were feasible, or mass consumption of fruits was even likely, and even then only in larger urban areas.  But with those changes, and with the sped-up lifestyle that accompanied them, some important things happened:

  1. People didn’t have the luxury of standing around and drinking an entire bowl of punch, so
  2. Bartenders came up with the single-serve “slings” and “bitters”,
  3. Which people found time for,
  4. And casual drinking was saved!  Hooray!

But I for one wonder whether something wasn’t lost in those heady days of change:  a drinking experience that was slower, more considered, and altogether more social.

In these modern times, shared drinking is limited to a few spare options:  splitting bottles of wine, which after the third person can become irritating and resentful; sharing out six-packs, which tends to be off-putting at finer dinner parties; or shaking up a whole mess of individual drinks to fussy guests who want their Cosmo to be more of a Pom-Cosmo or an Apple-tini (can you do that? If you add butterscotch liqueur that would be AMAZING!), leaving you no time to actually enjoy yourself.

Clearly, the time is ripe for the return of the Punch.

Ha ha ha ha ha, no, SILLY!  Not that one (exclusively)!  I mean the drinking kind (as well)!

Everything about today’s environment is simply begging for punch:  the continued trend towards hosting, the “Frugal is the New Black” mentality that will last all of forty seconds into the economic recovery, and the growing interest in “classic” bar recipes that’s starting to run out of 1940s content to recycle.  It’s all pointing at the return of a tradition!

Which is why we at Choosy Beggars have decided to take the lead on bringing back the Punch, starting with some basic rules and a no-fail classic.

The Basic Four-Part Punch

The important thing about punches is proportion:  You could conceivably make a single-serving punch, if you really wanted to and enjoy squeezing out citrus juices an ounce at a time, but that’s not really the direction to scale in.

Rather, a good punch should be structured so that you could make a pitcher, a full bowl or even a great big ol’ bucket of it — as long as you keep to the measures, the drink itself will hold together.  There is a certain mighty satisfaction that comes with that thought, as though you have the ultimate decision-making power over just how buzzed your guests will be over the course of an afternoon:

“WOULD YOU LIKE A DRINK?  THEY ARE IN THE COOLER,” you might boom.  And then, “HA HA, BEHOLD THAT THE COOLER ITSELF IS YOUR DRINKING VESSEL, FILLED WITH DECA-LITRES OF DELICIOUS IMMORTAL NECTAR!  SUP DEEPLY, FRIEND!”

HUNGRY? WE SHOULD HAVE SOME KEBABS OFF THE GRILL IN A SEC! HA HA HA HA HA!

With that it mind, the rules to a classic punch are actually pretty simple:

  • One of sour, usually a citrus juice taken directly from the fruit.  Frozen sour drinks are a little dicey, since they usually come sweetened and may throw the flavor off-kilter.
  • Two of sweet, which could be a simple syrup, an undiluted juice from concentrate, or (if you’re feeling particularly daring) even a cream.
  • Three of strong, which should need no introduction — punches like their elemental, hearty bases.  You could get fancy here, but the classics work best:  gin for complexity, rum for sweet and tropical, vodka for va-va-va-voom.  Mixing between them can work, but don’t sacrifice flavor for cleverness.
  • Four of weak, which can be as simple as cold water or as complicated as you like, keeping in mind you don’t want to wipe out everything you’ve built so far.  Carefully mixing the right gin with the proper sweetener, balancing gently against hand-squeezed orange juice, isn’t worth a whole lot if you dump a cup of Diet Coke over the top.
  • And serve!

In our case, we went with a Bahamian mix in two varieties, made up of:

  • 1 part freshly-squeezed lime juice
  • 2 parts simple syrup, which can be prepared in advance and live in your fridge (as ours has) for over a year
  • 3 parts of delicious, all-too-legal-in-Canada Havana Rum
  • 4 parts of soda water (Tina’s “pink” variation subbed in 2 parts of no-sugar cranberry juice for the soda)

It’s best to assemble the parts in order, so that you’re layering the sugar on top of the bitter, the liquor on top of the flavor, and the dilution on top of the solution.  Strictly speaking, it wouldn’t change your life if you just blobbed everything together, but the flavors tend to blend better when they’ve been introduced in the right sequence.  And the whole point is to have something over which you can linger, isn’t it?

Too long as punch been synonymous with an innocuous children’s drink, the kind of thing that makes your teeth ache from sweetness and gives your kids a peculiar type of the shakes after they’ve had one too many glasses.  But there was a time when a punch was an occasion, the center of a table and the reason to gather:  Refreshing, fruity, bright and flavorful, they were the afternoon beverage of choice — a territory long since ceded to the godforsaken heathenry of chilled Chardonnays and light beer.

The punch is an economical marvel just waiting to be re-discovered, free of the international posturing of sangria or the cheap marketing of one-bottle cocktails.  Bound only by some simple rules, the punch offers freedom that cocktails can sometimes lack — your adventuresome spirit, so reviled when creatively free-pouring “martinis”, can find a home here within the limits of a mere ratio.

We declare it the drink of the summer, and we hope you will too.

  • Erica

    Okay, that’s it – when we’re around for our Toronto weekend at the end of the month, we’re totally having punch. Yes? Yes.

    (Nice s&v chip cameo up there. I bought pitas last night because of you two)

  • Marcel

    No discussion of punch is complete without mention of the greatest punch spokesman of all time…ROBERTO ALOMAR

    “Makain Ponch…Cach da Tase!”

    http://sports.yahoo.com/mlb/blog/big_league_stew/post/VintageTube-Roberto-Alomar-s-turn-as-pitchman-f?urn=mlb,212096

  • Jason

    Panty Rippers:
    -2 parts pineapple juice
    -1 part Malibu Coconut Rum
    -1 part Bacardi Silver Rum (or 151)

    Is it too sweet? Probably. Is Malibu Coconut Rum nasty? Certainly. Will this kick your party, or a sun-drenched afternoon for two, into high gear? Absolutely. Where did this name come from? I have no idea, but it fits the effect. Those imbibing really will have no idea where this hit them from.

    • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Mike

      They may not know where it hit them from, but they certainly will know where it hit them in (read: their livers).

      I approve of this recipe whole-heartedly. During my drink-nothing-but-rum phase, this is the sort of thing I would mix myself on a Tuesday night while watching baseball, in some sort of perverse Americano-Caribbean fusion.