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When it comes to cocktail catering for a crowd, punch really is the most sensible alternative to being stuck behind a bar shaking, straining and muddling the night away. Not to mention, there is something agreeably convivial about catching up around the punch bowl. So, dust off the crystal because punch is making a well-deserved comeback this season.
Punch has always been a festive season favourite, but trends change and the potent punches of yesteryear tend to miss the mark when it comes to sessionability. Don't get me wrong. Our forebears knew how to throw a party. Perhaps the most absurd and legendary Christmas booze-up of all time was Lord Admiral Edward Russell's punch party of 1694, which featured a tiled garden fountain filled with more than 2500 litres of punch, complete with weather canopy and small boat. Unsurprisingly, such tales of extravagant drunkenness did little to secure the drink's reputation within aristocratic circles, resulting in a move towards lower-alcohol and teetotaller punches during the Victorian era.
Let's face it, if your guests plan to drive, or walk for that matter, you should probably heed Queen Vic's warning and hold back on the booze a little.
Quantities aren't the only thing to consider. The spirits market has changed over the past few hundred years. Original 17th century recipes call for a base of Batavia arrack, a heady, molasses and rice-based spirit that originated on the island of Java, Indonesia. Die-hard punch geeks can track down modern versions, however, gin, brandy and rum have become the norm, and with an ever-growing selection of craft spirits in today's market, experimentation can be rewarding. A word of advice: keep things modest and don't bother using top-shelf gear. The primary function of punch was to mask a potent blend of spirits with sugar, fruit and citrus. Some things haven't changed.
Don't be afraid of dilution. Cocktail purists may cringe at the litres of tea and soda water often employed to make some of the classics, but the key to punch is its drinkability. Failure to adhere to recommended dilution rates could result in your party ending much sooner than planned. With that in mind, a punch can easily lose its personality if the ice takes over. A good trick is to use one large block that melts slowly, maintaining even dilution over the course of the party.
The origins of the name punch are elusive. Some believe it comes from the Hindi word paunch, meaning five, and referring to the principal ingredients of alcoholic spirit, sugar, lemon, water and spice. Others suggest it refers to the name of the vessel it was served in – a puncheon, or large wooden cask.
At the end of the day, the good old-fashioned punch bowl always comes up trumps. It is both practical and ceremonious. One downside to the traditional bowl can be volume. Jugs are a good option if scaling down recipes for a smaller crowd, or turn on the retro charm and serve in a disembowelled watermelon half. Avoid trendy oversized glass jars with taps as they easily become clogged by fruit and other punch debris. Lastly, a ladle is essential, as scooping with a glass always results in stained linen.
Grapefruit sherry cooler. Photo: Joel Beerden
The lower-alcohol option: Grapefruit sherry cooler
Swap the traditional heavy-hitting spirits for amontillado sherry and an aromatic vermouth.
2 tsp sugar
120ml amontillado sherry
120ml Margan off-dry vermouth
120ml cranberry juice
soda water, to taste
1. Using a vegetable peeler, peel the grapefruits and orange, avoiding the pith, and add the wide peel strips to a punch bowl with sugar. Rub the sugar and peels together with the back of a spoon to release the citrus oils, repeating a few times over the course of half an hour.
2. Add the juice from the two grapefruits, sherry, vermouth, cranberry juice and ice to the bowl. Top up with a splash of soda water to taste.
Booch and no-booze: Peach, rose and kombucha spritz. Photo: Joel Beerden
The no-alcohol option: Peach, rose and kombucha spritz
If the silly season is wearing you down, this booze-free alternative will help to keep you on your feet with plenty of fresh summer fruit and healthy bacteria from kombucha. Perfect for a hot Christmas Day by the beach.
2 peaches, stones removed and fresh cut into eight slices each
300ml peach nectar
750ml unflavoured kombucha
½ tsp rosewater
1. Using a vegetable peeler, peel wide strips from the orange and add to a punch bowl. Bruise the peel gently with the back of a spoon.
2. Add the remaining ingredients and top up with plenty of ice.
A carafe of gin and prosecco punch. Photo: Joel Beerden
Keep it simple: a modern take on the champagne punch
With only a few ingredients, this pared-back number is a breeze to prepare. There's no need to spend big on the bubbles – a simple, clean prosecco will let the gin do the talking.
120ml lemon juice
60ml simple syrup (50:50 water to sugar)
most of a bottle of sparkling wine
1. Add gin, lemon juice and simple syrup to a punch bowl or carafe with plenty of ice.
2. Top up with sparkling wine and garnish with strips of lemon peel.
Spice it up: Amaro cherry punch
This one just scrapes in under the $5 mark, but Amaro Sfumato's distinct smoke and alpine herb flavours tick all the boxes at this time of year. Fruity, festive, but with a cleansing bitterness, this one works wonders with richer fare such as clove-studded glazed ham. Adjust the sugar and lemon ratios to taste, as sweetness can vary between lambrusco producers.
1 handful ripe cherries
30ml Cappelletti Amaro Sfumato
30ml Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao
60ml Dolin Red Vermouth
about 30ml lemon juice
about 15ml simple syrup (50:50 water to sugar)
most of a bottle of lambrusco
1. Lightly crush the cherries and the peel from one orange in a punch bowl. Add the other ingredients except the lambrusco. Let the mixture sit for at least half an hour to macerate.
2. Add ice and top up with lambrusco to taste.
Turn on the fireworks: Charles Dickens' flaming punch
Nothing brings drama to a festive get-together like indoor pyrotechnics. Be warned: care and high ceilings are advisable for this one. Dickens was a staunch advocate for punch well beyond its heyday and was known for this uniquely theatrical preparation routine.
200ml dark rum
600ml black tea, chilled
1. Add the peel from two lemons and the sugar to an enamelled cast-iron pot or heatproof bowl. Rub the sugar and peel strips together with the back of a spoon, repeating a few times over the course of half an hour.
2. Add rum and brandy. Using a long-handled heatproof spoon, scoop up a small amount of the spirit mix. Light a match and use it to carefully ignite the spoon mixture. Add the flaming alcohol to the bowl. Let the spirits burn for a couple of minutes before extinguishing by covering with a heatproof tray or lid.
3. Let the mixture cool slightly, then add the juice of two lemons, tea and ice. Garnish with citrus and grated nutmeg.