Serving a giant communal cocktail at your holiday function feels like a no-brainer—in theory. But then the day arrives, and your attempt to recreate the Charleston Light Dragoon’s Punch (or some equally delicious-yet-obscure recipe) fizzles amid the onslaught of arrivals and hors d’oeuvres.
But there is a better way: batching. To get some timely pointers on preparing punch ahead of time, I spoke with Kevin Martin, a former manager of Boston’s renowned Eastern Standard bar and the current VP of Sales at Privateer Rum. Martin provided three modern recipes that adapt particularly well to advance preparation, along with some basic tips on how to make batching a success.
“You’re doing all the work ahead of time,” says Martin. “Smarter, not harder. It frees you up for that day so you’re not the bartender.”
Punch Batching 101
What allows these punches to be made days—or if using a freezer, weeks—ahead of time is dividing their base element and their spirit element. The base element, which contains the juices, sugars, spices, and other non-alcoholic flavorings, is the labor intensive part of each punch. By making each in advance, you’re able to simply bring them out the day-of and finish them by adding their respective spirit and garnishes.
The base element of each recipe Martin supplied shares two things in common: a citrus juice and a syrup.
“Freshly squeezed lime juice and lemon juice is fragile. It’s only good for a day,” Martin says. “But the simple syrup acts as a preservative, so you’re basically turning it into a cordial. That extends the life of the punch base.”
Once made, the preserving effect of sugar allows the bases to be refrigerated for up to four days, or if they can be frozen, a month. Martin even says that a dual approach can prove helpful in some situations.
“Let’s say you’re having two parties on two different weekends. You can freeze half of it for the party that’s farther away, and keep the other half unfrozen for the party that’s coming up.”
If you’ve gone the frozen route, Martin advises defrosting the base overnight in the refrigerator. But in case you find yourself defrosting the day-of, try running it under cold water to help advance the thaw. Just don’t, under any circumstances, try to put it in the microwave.
Ice Is Important
Once the base is united with its boozy other half and sitting pretty in a bowl, you’ll have to think about its ice situation. There are two main approaches: you can either add a single, large ice block to the bowl, or set aside cubes that guests can add to their individual cups.
If you’re going with the ice block add it to the punch 15 minutes before serving to help it reach the ideal temperature. At the same time, add 20% by volume cold water to the punch to account for the slower dilution of water.
“Just like a cocktail, a punch relies on water to bind and blend all of the ingredients together,” Martin says. “You do that by shaking or stirring a cocktail.” In the case of punch, you’re relying on faster-melting individual cubes or an infusion of cold water.
Garnish With Intention
Martin, a serious garnish advocate, follows one faithful maxim:
“My rule is whatever you garnish the punch with should be in the punch, unless you’re garnishing it to add a tertiary flavor.”
For Martin, this means taking ingredients used to make the punch—for instance, sliced grapefruit and pineapple for the Seasonal Sunset (below)—and artfully arranging them around the base of the bowl. While this example can be done by the host pre-party, Martin likes to make the garnish an interactive experience for guests. For the Harvest Punch, that means setting out nutmeg seeds and microplanes so guests can grate it fresh. In the case of the Preserved Fall Punch (also below), leave out branches of sage so revelers can pluck off leaves and float them in their cup.
In Martin’s view, encouraging guests to take an active role in how the punch is served ties into the spirit of punch itself.
“You can make that part of the activity, going back to what the punch bowl was meant to be,” says Martin. “It’s a communal cocktail, so the more people involved, the better.”
Martin was kind enough to provide us with three recipes, which go from very easy to still-pretty-easy to intermediate. Make one, or make them all. You won’t have trouble finding willing drinkers. After all, ’tis the season for punch.
2 parts spirit (silver rum, aged rum, bourbon, rye, brandy or gin, or an equal blend of any two or three)
1 part grapefruit juice (can substitute orange juice or pomegranate juice)
1 part pineapple juice
½ part fresh lime juice
½ part simple syrup
Angostura Bitters, to taste
Citrus peels and pomegranate seeds (if pomegranate juice has been substituted), for garnish
Create the base by combining grapefruit juice, pineapple juice, lime juice, simple syrup and Angostura Bitters, and mixing thoroughly. Strain into a sealed container. Base will keep 2-3 days in refrigerator or up to one month frozen. To complete, combine base (thaw overnight if frozen) with spirit in a punch bowl. Garnish and serve.
2 parts spirit (aged rum, bourbon, rye or brandy)
2 parts mulled apple cider*
1 part fresh lemon juice
1 part Grade A dark maple syrup
Sliced apples, for garnish
Freshly shaved nutmeg, for garnish
Create the base by combining mulled apple cider with lemon juice and maple syrup, and mixing thoroughly. Base will keep 2-3 days in refrigerator or up to one month frozen. To complete, combine base (thaw overnight if frozen) with spirit in a punch bowl. Garnish and serve. Can be served cold, or warm by heating in crockpot or stove over low heat.
*Mulled apple cider (produces 1 quart)
1 quart apple cider
1 cinnamon stick
2 star anise
5 allspice and/or cardamom pods
Add all ingredients to a saucepan and bring to just under a simmer. Turn off heat and keep pan on burner for one hour, stirring occasionally, before removing mixture from heat and straining out.
Preserved Fall Punch
2 parts silver rum or vodka
1 part fresh cantaloupe juice (cantaloupe pureed in a blender and strained)
3/4 part apple cider vinegar syrup*
1/4 part fresh lime juice
Fresh sage leaves, for garnish
Create the base by combining cantaloupe juice, apple cider vinegar syrup and lime juice, and mixing thoroughly. Base will keep 2-3 days in refrigerator. To complete, combine spirit with base in punch bowl and add 1/4 teaspoon of salt per quart, stirring to dissolve. Garnish with sage leaves and serve.
*Apple cider vinegar syrup
1 part apple cider vinegar
1 part sugar
Add apple cider vinegar and sugar in a saucepan and bring to just under a simmer. Remove from heat and stir until sugar is completely dissolved. Allow mixture to cool, then muddle in sage leaves (taste to determine desired flavor) and strain.