In our lifetimes, punch has meant either the watery treacle ladled out at stuffy galas or a can of red fructose from (so we thought) Hawaii. Neither would have qualified in the 18th or 19th centuries, when good punch was the bar call du jour. “Professor” Jerry Thomas, the original American mixologist, lists no fewer than 81 punch recipes in his 1862 tell-all, How To Mix Drinks. 150 years later, with punch bowls returning to trendsetting cocktail houses and preeminent booze historian David Wondrich about to publish a treatise on the subject (titled, accurately, Punch), the ladle is officially back in fashion. Just in time to combat winter’s existential chill—and revitalize your holiday party offerings. All you need: a can’t-miss recipe.
For that, we turned to Joaquín Simo, founding bartender at Death and Co. (one of NYC’s premiere cocktail bars). Simo offered a riff on Philadelphia Fish-House Punch—an elixir that, the aforementioned Wondrich writes, “deserves to be protected by law.” (Plus, it’s fun to say.) The original was invented by The Colony of Schuylkill, a “hunting” club established in 1732 and apparently dedicated—like any good club—to relaxing in the fish-house. And, er, making punch. Their creation got pretty famous (Washington dropped in for a sip in 1787). “It’s a great story that speaks to why we consume punch,” says Simo. “A group of like-minded souls, gathering around, celebrating each other’s company. It has all the elements of punch at its most basic: It’s fun to experiment with, and a great way to introduce someone to the category.” We’re sold. Here’s how Simo makes his:
- •12 oz rich demerara syrup
- •2 cups lemon juice
- •4 oz Massanez Crème de Peche
- •1.5 cups Appleton Reserve rum
- •1 bottle (750ml) H By Hine VSOP cognac
- •16 oz strong black tea, cooled
- •16 oz soda
Makes: a few cups shy of a gallon
Prior to any mixing, get your ice sorted. A day before party time, fill a gallon-size bowl or large Tupperware container with water and throw it in the freezer. When you’re ready to serve, eject the mighty cube into the punchbowl. (If the cube is too mighty, you can always trim it with the ice pick you’ll be dashing out, last-minute, to purchase).
To make the syrup, add boiling water to demerara sugar at about a 2-to 1-ratio of sugar to water. Stir until the sugar is completely dissolved. Or, for an extra citrus bite, try this: Muddle 8 ounces of demerara sugar with three lemons’ worth of peel (using a swivel peeler, trying for long peels). Allow the mixture to sit for two hours, then add 8 ounces of hot water to it, and stir as normal (don’t forget to remove the peels after stirring).
Finally, keep your ingredients cold, to discourage polar meltdown when punch meets ice.
When searching for your signature house style, start small. Investigate different rums (Simo likes 100-proof Smith & Cross for extra pop, or Goslings Black Seal for folks with a sweet tooth). Cognac differences will be subtler; most importantly, don’t go too cheap (younger than a VS) or too steep (older than VSOP). For the price, we like Ferrand Ambre. Whiskey lovers might consider swapping the rum for bourbon. The key to substitutions: Think about what you’re removing, and find something with an equivalent weight (a rich rum, for instance, might be well replaced with a sweet bourbon). Simo suggests Evan Williams Black Label (a textbook bourbon with a round, fruit note) or Weller Antique 107 (wheated but spicy) as two affordable choices. Rye plays nice with cognac, and will give you a drier libation. Lastly, don’t get too precious. Toss some nice honeyed stuff in there, like Drambuie or Benedictine, and see what happens (adjust your syrup accordingly). Says Simo, “any liqueur you’ve got sitting around the house probably won’t suck in a punch.”
The Holiday Trimmings
It’s easy to recast your new cold-weather punch as a holiday punch. Simo recommends adding some Port to the recipe for a richer cup of cheer. An ounce of allspice dram will certainly lend a yuletide vibe. Scratch the black tea for something with a strong spice profile, like chai. Scour the pantry for baking spices, if you wish. The backbone of the recipe will support a lot of variation, so experiment. The boys at the fish-house certainly did. To quote a bartender we used to work with, “Don’t worry, we drink our mistakes here.”