For most people, the word “punch” brings to mind a couple of images. One is of a baby shower with a bowl containing a mix of something like frozen lemonade and ginger ale, with scoops of rainbow sherbet slowly melting into it. The other is of a trash can in a frat house, filled with a brightly colored mystery liquid — probably containing Everclear. But there is so much more to punch than that!
Long before there were cocktails, there was punch. The idea of punch originated with British sailors in the 1600s, who were entitled to their daily ration of alcohol. Normally, that would have been beer or wine, but both of those would spoil on the monthslong trip to the tropics. The only thing more dangerous than a drunk sailor was an involuntarily sober one, so a solution had to be found. In Indonesia they found Batavia arrack, a local spirit distilled from sugarcane and red rice, which with a little doctoring could be turned into something not entirely unlike wine. Add some sugar for sweetness, citrus juice for acidity, and water so the sailors wouldn’t get too drunk, and you’d have a barrel of something that could keep the men happy all the way back to England.
Eventually, punches of various kinds became the English mixed drink of choice, with cocktails only emerging after colonists moved to America. And today, punches are coming back in vogue — especially during the holiday season. It turns out that a big bowl of delicious punch is a great way to serve a complex and interesting drink without spending all your time behind the bar.
The traditional punch formula includes sweet, sour, strong, and weak elements. “Just like a good cocktail, it’s all about balance,” says Dave Kwiatkowski, owner of Sugar House bar in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. “You want to taste the alcohol, but not too much. You want it to be sweet, you want it to be sour, you want it to have complementary flavors, but nothing too overpowering.”
The most important thing about punch? Unless you want your family holiday gathering to end up like that fraternity party, you’ll need to pay extra attention to that weak portion in the traditional formula. The ideal glass of punch should be no more alcoholic than a glass of wine and served in small cups, as people are going to be drinking it over a long period of time.
Kwiatkowski offers up a seasonal bourbon and port punch recipe (below), but many cocktails can be turned into punch. Simply use cups instead of ounces for the measurements, then add 1 1/2 to 2 parts of your weak element — that could be just water, or club soda or ginger beer for some fizz. Tea is also a traditional addition and one that Sugar House uses for the punch it serves during its regular afternoon mixology classes.
Bourbon Port Punch Recipe
8 oz. bourbon
8 oz. tawny port
4 oz. lemon juice
4 oz. simple syrup
2-4 dashes Angostura bitters
(or to taste)
12 oz. ginger beer, chilled
Toasted star anise and cloves, and
lemon and orange slices for garnish
Combine all ingredients except ginger beer in a large jar and refrigerate several hours before your party. To serve, pour into a punch bowl over a large ice block and add ginger beer. Garnish with spices and fruit slices. (Serves 8)
This story is featured in the December 2021 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more stories in our digital edition.