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Punch Renaissance

Posted on  | June 24, 2013   Bookmark and Share
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Time-saving & convivial, big-batch concoctions inspire bartenders and please patrons.

The Wisdom of Pele by Todd Thrasher

Punch these days is adding renewed zest and vigor to bars, restaurants and hotels. Although well-known to geeky cocktailians as an especially sociable concoction, with some recipes dating back centuries, its renaissance today is definitely punching up profits in ways hardly imaginable a few short years ago. And when mixologists discuss Punch today, they are certainly not talking about the neon-colored liquids that collegiate types have been known to throw together for a frat party. Authentic Punch is a studied ritual in the making, serious bartenders assert, not merely a big boozy bowl.

“The Punch phenomenon emerged as part of the craft cocktail revival and the recovery of the lost arts of the bar,” says Chad Solomon, co-founder along with Christy Pope of Cuffs & Buttons Cocktail Catering & Consulting, a Brooklyn, NY-based firm. He adds: “At a certain point beginning a few years ago, we all discovered Punch. And once it entered, it replaced bottle service; Punch is ideal for a shared experience.”

One of Cuffs & Buttons’ clients, Laird & Company—America’s oldest family-owned distillery, dating back to the 1600s and famed for its line of applejack brandies—has seen its overall sales turbo-charged thanks to the country’s Punch revival. Cuffs & Buttons created “The Spirit of ’76,” which features Laird’s Bonded Straight Apple Brandy, and its popularity helped the company’s sales jump by an astonishing 25% in the last three years, says Lisa Laird-Dunn, VP and ninth-generation member in the Scobeyville, NJ-based firm. She adds, “In the last six years, Punch has really taken off; it is a natural transition from classic cocktails to Punches.”

At Bar TNT in Arlington, VA, co-owner and bartender Todd Thrasher, says, “We serve a fresh-made Punch every day during and after Happy Hour.” During Happy Hour, Bar TNT charges $4 for a six-ounce serving; afterwards, $8. Thrasher reports, since the first day Bar TNT opened, during Happy Hour, “Punch accounts for about half our sales; it’s a big, big seller.” Thrasher and his partner also operate five other restaurants and bars in the northern Virginia region, and all of them feature Punch.

John Gersten, general manager at Drink in Boston, MA, notes that Punch is the ideal drink to offer as guests turn up for a special party or a private event. Says Gersten: “We try to have guests get a glass of punch as soon as they arrive. It takes a little pressure off the bartenders, plus it is a really great way to get people to mingle and talk.” Gersten has served such historic Punches as Philadelphia Fish House Punch, Regent’s Punch and Drink’s signature Sons of Liberty Punch.

The Fish House Punch is a classic recipe, and interested bartenders may find it and many others in Jerry’s Thomas’s How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon Vivant’s Companion. This ground-breaking book was originally published in 1862 and it is widely considered the first serious American book on cocktails and Punches by drinks historians. (The book is available in reprint at amazon.com)

Ice-Breaker Meets Time-Saver

Todd Thrasher, co-owner and bartender, Bar TNT in Arlington, VA

Punch is a fundamentally social drink, in a way that individually crafted cocktails simply can not be, say mixologists. “Punch is all about shared merriment,” says Joaquin Simo, a partner at Pouring Ribbons, a Lower East Side Manhattan bar. “And it’s a great way to save time for servers.”

As Damon Boelte, bar director at Frankies and Prime Meats in Brooklyn, notes, “If you take the whole spectrum of drinks, Punch is without doubt the most social of drinks.” He adds, “We offer Punch every day at Prime Meats; it’s priced at $5 and we serve it in our collection of antique Punch glasses.” And it is a steady, profitable seller. Boelte reports, “Punch accounts for about eight to ten percent of our bar business, which is actually quite substantial as we are known as a cocktail destination.”

As best-selling author of Imbibe and Punch, drinks historian Dave Wondrich adds a very practical note in serving Punch whether at a bar or at home: “For a busy, craft-cocktail type bar, it works like it does for home entertainers: It gives them a way of serving large parties quickly with something delicious. The bartenders can knock out a bowl in as much time as it takes to make a single drink, and that’s six or eight people taken care of happily—sharing a bowl of punch is a fun social ritual—and one bartender who can get back to slinging drinks for the cocktail geeks at the bar.”

Francesco Lafranconi, executive director of mixology and spirits education for Southern Wine and Spirits of Nevada, whose clients include major national hotel groups as well as many Las Vegas properties where he is based, says, “The Punch shared at the table is a true manifestation of conviviality, it creates an atmosphere of ‘reunion’ among friends, a jovial way to share the same drinking experience/recipe together.”

Punch presentation is key as well, notes Lafranconi: “Nowadays, punch is often the more hip and trendy alternative to Margarita and Sangria pitchers. The vessel is very important too; it can span from milk glass punch bowls to acrylic ones.” And he underscores the idea that Punch is also a labor-saving choice for large parties: “Implementing punch recipe programs for private functions would allow the bartenders to serve dozen of drinks in a very short period of time, versus individual crafted drinks. From a hotel banquet department perspective, this would allow less bar staff and ‘open bar’ ingredients to be involved, thus cutting labor and mise en place needs.”

Whether it’s a classic from the 19th century or an original created with seasonal ingredients and the finest spirits, Punch today is punching well above its already potent strength for savvy bar owners, restaurateurs and food and beverage managers at leading hotels.  

4 Pillars of Punch
Dave Wondrich’s Keys to Concocting The Perfect Punch

In Dave Wondrich’s book Punch, the author details four essential steps to making an authentic, savory Punch.  

1. The “Ambrosial Essence” of Jerry Thomas
Wondrich credits Jerry Thomas, the 19th century father-of-all-things-cocktail, with underlining the importance of the foundation of all great Punches: Oleo-saccharum, or “oil-sugar.” This “ambrosial essence” is a mixture of sugar and lemon oils, achieved by peeling the yellow skin of the lemons (not the white pulp underneath) and putting these peeled curls into an appropriate measure of sugar for a minimum of 30 minutes, but the longer the better. This infuses the sugar with a deep lemony character, imparting depth of flavor to any serious Punch.

2. Shrub
This is the name of the base liquid blend of lemon or citrus juice in any authentic Punch. Depending on the specific recipe, the addition of a little water, to the shrub in advance of mixing in other spirits is critical, enabling spice and other ingredients to achieve their fullest flavors. Hint: Wondrich recommends the use of boiling water.

3. The Order
Either by trial-and-error in creating a new Punch recipe, or in scrupulously following the sequence in mixing the remainder of ingredients in an established Punch recipe, the order in adding each ingredient is critical to the successful blending of a Punch.

4. Proportions
Wondrich cautions that be it a single drink or crafting a large bowl of Punch, pay special attention to the proportions of the constituent characteristics in a given recipe: sweet, sour, strong and weak.


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