In a season filled with traditions, few things are more traditional to the winter holidays than a bowl of punch—whether at a catered office party or at home for an open house or a family get-together.
Many of our winter holiday traditions come from northern Europe, and punch is no different—a gift to Americans from the British Isles. Yet the British didn’t invent this common concoction. It was discovered by sailors in the British Royal Navy during the English Colonial period when they first conquered, then occupied, the Indian subcontinent.
The drink and the name come from the region, a derivative of the Hindi word for “five,” honoring the five key ingredients of the drink—a spirit, sugar, lemon, water and spices or tea. Although punch today is similar in many ways to the original, much has changed.
The spirit used in Britain and the United States is usually brandy and sometimes table wine, although a younger generation is increasingly opting for a white spirit, such as vodka, which will still deliver a punch without influencing the taste. Pure sugar is still often added to punch, but diet-conscious drinkers often prefer the sweetness and flavor to come from fresh fruit and fruit juices, such as berries and stone fruit.
The lemon or lime or some other form of tart citrus is a key component in giving acidity and a feeling of freshness to the drink, always necessary for a clean finish and a balance for the palate. But an option is bar bitters, long the right-hand ingredient of mixologists, who these days often make their own.
Water is used less often. Normally, soda water or tonic water is employed to give the punch a bubbly spritz and even more freshness. Some punch-makers toss the water completely in favor of champagne or another crisp sparkling wine, which matches particularly well if the spirit used happens to be brandy. We seldom see tea in holiday punches—although it could work—but instead more often we opt for fragrant baking spices such as cinnamon, cloves and ginger, or even vanilla.
If you’re making homemade punch in a bowl for a party, prepare it in advance and put it into smaller bottles and refrigerate it, ready for holiday drop-by visitors. Punch should always be fresh, fruity, fizzy and refrigerated.
But as Centreville restaurateur Susan Teiser of Montrachet Catering points out, an alternate version is milk punch, which she says is more popular among her customers at Thanksgiving than later in the season.
Milk punch, which is a nog without the egg, is usually associated with New Orleans and the coastal South. Its basics are milk or cream, bourbon or brandy, sugar and vanilla. But there are many variations, including those with ice cream.
But don’t drink too much, or your punch will become paunch.