The tradition of punch dates back to the early 1600s, in, of all places, India. English traders and Naval officers took very kindly to a beverage served in communal fashion, which was always made from five ingredients; spirit (originally arrack), citrus, sugar, water and spice. The spice came either in the form of black tea or in one of the many exotic spices that were indigenous to the region, such as nutmeg and clove. The Hindi word for five is panch or paunch, which hardly seems a coincidence.
The English brought punch back to Europe, where it was quickly adopted and regionalized by everyone from the Swedes (Glogg) to the Germans (Feuerzangenbowle). Wassail, the hot spiced concoction associated with Yuletide, is another direct descendant of punch and is meant to bring groups of friends and family together to share from the flowing bowl and toast to good health. Early American colonists must have enjoyed the ‘salubrious’ benefits as well, as punch became a fixture in taverns and homes up and down the Eastern Seaboard and grew as the nation did, remaining a staple of sporty, social drinking into the mid 1800s.
Punching Up the Bottom Line
These days, thanks to forward-thinking and historically minded mixologists around the country, the punch tradition is making its way back into American cocktail culture. While re-introduced by, and most often seen in, cocktails bars like New York’s Death & Co. and Boston’s Drink, operators of hotels and even nightclubs are beginning to cash in, realizing that punch, while seemingly complex and labor intensive, can represent an easy, cost effective way to serve a large group of patrons.
Willy Shine, a founder and partner in Contemporary Cocktails, recently introduced a punch menu at 44 in New York’s Royalton Hotel. Guests choose from a list of four to five punches that are crafted at a service bar and finished tableside. Shine says that his pour costs average around 25 percent for the offerings, all of which are comprised of fresh organic produce, house-made syrups and super-premium spirits.
Depending on the size of the vessel an establishment chooses to use, the greater or fewer the number of people a single bowl of punch will serve. While Shine’s serve a minimum of eight to ten people, other bars might choose to serve four to six at a time or perhaps make a batch to serve fifty people, in a grand bowl that sits on the bar counter, from which individually charged cups are ladled. Depending on the number of people served and the cost of ingredients included, prices can vary from $35 to $500 or more.
John Gertsen, mixologist of Drink in Boston, serves offerings like Admiral’s Punch or Bishop’s Punch from his own collection of antique bowls of various shape and size. Rather than tag his punches with a fixed price, Gertsen charges per guest and it averages $12 a head. He even goes so far as to create elaborate ice rings and blocks from ancient molds that also come from his personal stash (no charge for the ice).
When Tippling Bros. opened Apothecary Bar and Lounge in Philadelphia, we skipped the bowl entirely, instead opting to bottle our rendition of punch and serve it on ice in gleaming Champagne buckets. The first round was poured out by the table server, allowing the guests to top themselves up. The inspiration for this idea came from Jerry Thomas, who, in his How to Mix Drinks, discussed bottling cocktails for guests to take with them on picnics.
Apothecary’s bottled cocktails became a big hit. At an average of around $55, with a 20 percent pour cost, they also became a very profitable item for the bar. Bartenders loved them as well, as they could use them to quickly serve a large group of people, rather than crafting six or seven cocktails per order.
Great Group Dynamics
With proper planning and execution, most ingredients that go into a punch can be pre-measured and even partially “batched” or combined, allowing the bartender to rapidly assemble the components when an order is placed. Brian Miller, former head bartender for Death & Co. on New York’s Lower East Side, had this to say when asked about punch and practical service. “For the most part, punch is a great thing for service. It adds to the communal aspect of a bar—which is exactly what a bar is all about. People ladling spirits into their friends’ cups in a convivial atmosphere—perhaps that may be the closest any one of us gets to experiencing the cocktail’s rich and wonderful past. Then there is the fact you can make one giant bowl of booze instead of six individual cocktails – it kind of speeds up the process.”
While punch offers an easy solution to serving a large number of guests in high style, it may weave its way back into the mainstream so much that it will become a mainstay on the drink menus of national chains restaurants. While punch does connote camaraderie and joyful good times, it also emphasizes imbibing large amounts of spirits, which is not something most of us in the on-premise sector want to encourage.
Nightclubs—many of which are part of hotels so guests don’t have to drive—on the other hand, are perfectly positioned to use punch service as an alternative to standard bottle service. Tippling Bros. recently created a menu of four punches for the Disco @ Trump Marina in Atlantic City to augment their bottle service list. They all include fresh ingredients and are assembled tableside for VIP guests. While guests are surprised to find them on offer, they love the service and “show” that goes into the presentation. Once one is ordered, every table seems to follow suit. The punches are priced between $225 and $250.
Punch service is a feasible and festive way for nearly any bar across America to bring more customers in from the cold. With a little research and recipe testing, and maybe some flea market shopping, operators can build a punch program that sets them apart from their competition. Whether hot or cold, a bowl of punch warms the soul and brings friends together … and puts their dollars into your register.