As the holidays approach, and thoughts of entertaining guests start to come together, most of us will have an idea well ahead of time what type of food we’ll be serving. Booze, on the other hand, too often comes as an afterthought. We prop a few bottles of wine or spirits on a table, alert guests to the location of the beer cooler, then call it a day. There’s a better way, as David Wondrich reminds us, and we can learn from both revelers of the past, as well as the au courant of the cocktail world.
Wondrich, the cocktail historians and author of such highly regarded books as the James Beard Award-winning Imbibe!, and Punch, will appear at Empire Restaurant & Lounge in the Seaport on Monday, Nov. 24 to ladle out a few bowls of punch, as well as some of his accumulated wisdom. He’ll be joined by Brother Cleve, Boston’s own highly credentialed cocktail chronicler.
Punch’s reputation has undergone a number of changes, Wondrich says. When he first started researching his book on the subject back in 2008, it had a poor reputation.
“It immediately brought about a visage of garbage cans, and big jug handles of everclear, blocks of frozen fruit dumped in, all that kind of dumb stuff. I’m not saying it wasn’t fun, but it was dumb.”
Anyone who’s nursed a cursed hangover after a holiday work party will know exactly what he means.
“That wasn’t the kind of thing you could drink so often, and as a culinary experience it was trifling at best, and as a hangover it was spectacular.”
Classic punch of the 19th century persuasion, he says, was more of an every day drink. We’ve gotten pretty far afield from that as punches have become more of a special-occasion-only option, and lost track of the simplicity of the form.
The best punches, he says, are like Italian food, with a few simple techniques. “Once you master those, and get the good ingredients, you’re done. There’s no need to do culinary sophistication, the ingredients will speak for themselves. That’s what we lost, the idea that it’s a simple every day drink.”
The steps are few. Firstly, the key to a good punch is the citrus, particular the oil of lemon peels. Wondrich recommends tossing lemon peels with sugar, which absorb the moisture, making the flavor not just sharp, but also sweet and rich, as in his recipe for a Boston Rum Punch he adapted from the pages of the Boston Globe in 1889.
Second comes choosing the right spirits. Stay away from vodka, and most gins, and stick to dark, heavier rums, cognacs, and whiskies. Thirdly, and perhaps most important, is water.
“People are afraid of watering their booze, but the idea of classic punch wasn’t to be at cocktail strength. It was almost like the light beer of alcohol, you could drink a few, talk, socialize, and wouldn’t get drunk so fast. A cocktail grabs you by the lapel and punches you in the stomach. Punch isn’t supposed to do that.” Although there are exceptions, like Chatham Artillery Punch, which takes Champagne instead of water.
Lastly, he says, don’t, over-spice. A lot of new mixologists are used to infusing ingredients, and heavily spicing spirits. “That makes for a really tasty first glass. Your second glass is tasty enough, an after that you get tired of fucking Chamomile.”
Punch should be almost bland, he says. “Just a little bit of interesting, something to keep you drinking.” And, even better if you’re hosting, enough to keep your guests from chasing you down to mix drinks all night.
If you go
Holiday Punch Party
Nov. 24, 8 p.m.
Empire Restaurant and Lounge
1 Marina Park Drive
Wondrich’sBoston Rum Punch recipe
3/4 cup white sugar
3/4 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice
1 quart water
4 ounces Pierre Ferrand Dry Orange Curacao
2 ounces aged New England rum
To prepare the punch’s base:
1. Peel 4 lemons into long spirals and place the peels in a 1 pint Mason jar with 3/4 cup of white sugar.
2. Seal, shake, and leave overnight, allowing the sugar to absorb the oil from the peels.
3. The next day, add 3/4 cup lemon juice. Seal and shake until the sugar has dissolved. (This is your shrub.)
4. Pour the shrub into a 2 quart pitcher, adding 1 quart of cold water, and (optionally) 4 ounces of Curacao. This is the lemonade.
To mix into 1 cocktail:
1. Combine 2 ounces of rum and 4 ounces of lemonade in a rock glass filled with ice.
2. Grate nutmeg over the top of the glass.