Dave is a walking encyclopedia of all things intoxcating, having gained fame for his lively drinks column in the american version of Esquire magazine and his amazingly well researched Imbibe!: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to “Professor” Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar, the Mixxit team had flown him out to pass on a little knowledge and in his words, ‘to do the tourist shit.’
Twenty or so bartenders crammed into the back bar of the Argyle to learn a little and laugh a lot. Wondrich has just wrapped up writing a book that explores the history and development of the Punch, precursor to the cocktail and tasty shared beverage of the sporting classes in auld New York. As such it was apt that the session started with a short history and a long drink.
Punch starts as a sailors beverage. As voyages began to stretch between continents and over months and years, more than a few problems evolved. First of all was with Beer, traditionally used to sake the thirst of the general rabble on board, when kept in barrels it didn’t last much beyond a few weeks, developing all manner of horrendous moulds and fungi. The officers too, were not exempt, their expensive wines ruined in the heat of the tropics, reduced to vinegar, or worse.
Somewhat unsurprising then that all eyes turned to the few barrels of medicinal spirits, seemingly unencumbered by the problems of the lesser ferments, they often appeared to improve with the length of journey.
Sugar and citrus, easily found on seaboard coasts, mellowed the fire of cheap brandies and grain spirits. Water too, softened the blow. The addition of spice gave the punch a complexity of flavour to match the wine it had replaced. Often too, the spirit would be matched with wine or port, to add some depth and probably familiarity to the brew.
This story then, was a great and entertaining segue into the first recipe of the day. Punches are made in parts due to their volume, so perhaps making this while you’re sober enough to translate volumes for parts would be a good idea. Another tip, if you’re working backwards from the volume of the punch bowl in front of you, always good to leave some of the volume free of punch for a hefty block of ice.
The recipe is as I wrote, and I’ll update it once I get the cheat sheet from the Mixxit team.
2 parts port, 2 parts VSOP cognac, 1 part sugar, 1 part lemon juice, 1 part water, spice.
The first and most important step is the infusing of the sugar with the oils from the rinds of a couple of the lemons used for the juice. This preparation is sometimes called oleo-sacharine, especially in the old books. It gives the sugar a lemony depth that makes or breaks this drink.
Combine the lemon-sugar with the lemon juice and add the liqours.
The last addition is the spice. Sometimes hydrochloric acid was used, which Dave deplores, but i remember tasting a dilute form in science class and its soapy astringency might just work.♣ Ambergris, a regurgitant of Sperm Whales was also popular. Somewhat tamely after that intro, Dave used nutmeg.
Finally then, the ladling. The fun bit, a crowd, clustered around a bowl, ladling little glasses. The very definition of a good time.
The drink itself is great, the flavours all stand out, none dominant but all coming together. I’ve been a bit worried about getting scurvy of late, so this is something I could really get used to. It has a great colour, and the nose is spicy thanks to the nutmeg and port. Simple but epic.
I’ve got a lot more to write on, thanks to Dave. A great Julep, the Hot Toddy, The Improved Brandy Cocktail, a Genever John Collins, Fat-washed Beefsky & the New York Sour, so keep your eyes peeled for those over the coming weeks. I was rapt with Dave’s presentation and obvious passion for the art and attitude that it takes to make great drinks and I’ll definitely take his advice on serving punch alongside cocktails at my next party, so I don’t end up chained to the bar all night with people waiting.
Big thanks too to the Mixxit team and Raro, for letting a passionate enthusiast tag along with the cities professionals.
♣ The writer accepts no responsibility for death nor injury resulting from personal experimentation.