These 3 punches will get the party started and keep it going

By Rebekah Peppler, The New York Times

Set a large bowl filled with punch in the center of a party and step back. Watch the merrymakers gather, the conversation flow and the awkward moments be thwarted through the offering of another ladleful.

This, after all, is the magic of a great punch, and, while punch’s exact origins remain unknown, revelers have enjoyed it since at least the 17th century and usually with a base formula of spirit (brandy, rum, whiskey, gin, arrack), sugar, citrus and spice.

Though preparing a punch is simple, it’s not a last-minute, thrown-together affair.

“Just like you would prep your meal, prep your drink,” said Jillian Vose, the former beverage director and bar manager at the Dead Rabbit, and the owner of Hazel and Apple, opening in Charleston, South Carolina, next year. “Make a checklist. Is my ice prepared? Do I have backup punch? Do I have enough sugar and citrus to fix any imbalances? Do I have enough of the soda or sparkling wine that I’m using to top?”

A deeply flavored, more complex punch starts with a citrus-and-sugar combination called oleo-saccharum: citrus peels (no white pith, please) muddled with sugar and allowed to sit for a few hours or preferably overnight for maximum infusion. “The oils give it another layer of flavor and brightness that you wouldn’t get just from citrus juice on its own,” Vose said.

From there, combine your oleo-saccharum with citrus juice and your spirit of choice, as well as water and other mixers to dilute the punch to drinkable levels.

Speaking of water, a punch truly isn’t finished without a frozen block (or blocks) of ice, which, with a little planning, is especially easy to make. Freeze filtered water in a Bundt pan (preferably silicone, though metal also works), an angel food cake pan, loaf pan, plastic quart container or even a bowl. Set in the bowl, the large block will melt leisurely, keeping punch chilled for hours. And should you decide to stud your ice with decorations, make them edible: citrus slices, seasonal berries and fruit, edible flowers, fresh herbs.

A decorated block of ice will shine in the classic Philadelphia Fish House punch, which dates to the early 18th century and blends rum, cognac and peach brandy. Finished with a grating of nutmeg, it fits in with any and all holiday crowds.

Or serve the more modern Mezcal Royale punch, featuring a few ounces of the rich yet bright combination of mezcal, blanc vermouth and cognac. A final festive splash of sparkling red wine nods to traditional Champagne punches.

You can also skip the spirits altogether and mix up a tea-based nonalcoholic smoky citrus punch. The smoky, bubbly blend of lemon-orange oleo-saccharum, Lapsang souchong tea, soda and tonic waters tastes as though it packs a boozy punch.

A final tip, if your bowl isn’t big enough to hold a full batch of punch, don’t stress. Serve the punch in half batches, refilling the bowl and even adding a fresh ice block as needed throughout the evening.

“Going back to refill your glass or filling each other’s glasses is kind of the point,” Vose said.

For all its pageantry, punch makes a host’s life easier, and it’s a festive way to serve a large group at once, freeing you to join guests in the punch bowl’s merry orbit and actually enjoy the party.

Nonalcoholic Smoky Citrus Punch

Historically, punch is an alcoholic drink, made with a spirit, sugar, citrus and spice, but this variation drops the spirit and doubles down on its other central components. Opting for smoky Lapsang souchong adds distinctive depth and character to the punch, though another black tea, such as Earl Grey or Darjeeling or a more robust green tea, can also be used. Likewise, the oranges in the lemon-orange oleo-saccharum (a muddled sugar and citrus mixture) can be swapped out for seasonal citrus, such as satsuma, mandarin or blood oranges. Bear in mind you need to start this punch the day before serving: While some of the tea is brewed hot before being added to the lemon-orange oleo-saccharum, cold-brewing the remainder of the tea ensures that the final punch is deeply flavored, smooth drinking and more nuanced than astringent. A mix of tonic and soda water to finish imbues the punch with a bubbly, quinine bitterness and helps to balance the tannins of the tea.

Yield: 18 to 20 (4-ounce) drinks

Total time: 20 minutes, plus at least 11 hours’ resting and chilling

Ingredients

  • 2 lemons, plus more for juicing as needed
  • 2 oranges
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 4 bags Lapsang souchong tea (or use 4 teaspoons loose-leaf)
  • 1 cup/8 ounces soda water
  • 1 cup/8 ounces tonic water
  • Lemon and orange slices, for serving
  • Ice ring or block, for serving (see tip)

Preparation

1. The day before serving, peel the lemons and oranges. Place the peels in a medium bowl or a large jar and reserve the fruit. Add the sugar and use a muddler or the end of a rolling pin to work the sugar into the peels until they start to turn slightly translucent, about 2 minutes. Set aside at room temperature for at least 2 hours or overnight.

2. In a pitcher or large glass jar, add 3 tea bags or 3 teaspoons loose-leaf tea. Pour in 3 cups water, cover and refrigerate for 8 to 12 hours. Remove and discard the tea bags, if using, or strain out and discard the tea leaves through a fine-mesh sieve lined with cheesecloth. (Cold-brewed tea will keep, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.)

3. Bring 1 cup water to a boil. Add the remaining 1 tea bag or 1 teaspoon loose-leaf tea. Steep for 4 to 5 minutes, then remove the tea bag or strain out the loose-leaf tea. Add the brewed tea to the citrus-sugar mixture and stir to dissolve the sugar. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer, pressing on the solids. Cover and chill in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour. (The mixture can also be stored in an airtight container, in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.)

4. When you are ready to serve, juice the reserved lemons and oranges (you should have about 1 cup juice, if needed, juice another lemon to get you to 1 cup). In a large punch or serving bowl, unmold the prepared ice wheel. Add the lemon and orange juice, reserved citrus-sugar-tea mixture, and the cold-brewed black tea. Pour in the soda water and tonic water, and stir gently to combine. Ladle into individual punch glasses and serve each with a lemon and orange slice.

TIPS: At least one day (up to a few days) before you want to serve the punch, make the ice ring or block: Add enough distilled water to come halfway up the sides of a Bundt pan (silicone is best) or other mold that will fit into your punch bowl. Freeze overnight. You can also add decorations: Pour a few inches of distilled water into your chosen mold and layer in edible decorations of your choice (citrus slices, seasonal berries and fruit, fresh herbs, whole spices, edible flowers. Remember that whatever you choose will eventually end up floating in the punch itself). Freeze for a few hours, then fill the mold with enough water to come halfway up the sides and freeze overnight. (This helps keep your decorations on the top of your final ice ring). If you’re having a hard time getting the ice out of the mold, dip the mold in hot water briefly or quickly run under hot water to help loosen.

Mezcal Royale Punch

This bright, thoroughly modern combination of lime, blanc vermouth, mezcal and cognac is topped, in a nod to classic Champagne punches, with sparkling red wine. If you don’t have sparkling red, opt for a dry Lambrusco, sparkling rosé or even a sparkling white. Using a sparkling white eliminates the festive color but keeps the effervescence. When choosing glasses or tea cups or ceramics to serve punch, be sure to err on the smaller side. Punch should be served in smaller portions — and refilled often.

Yield: 18 to 20 (4-ounce) drinks

Total time: 15 minutes, plus at least 3 hours’ chilling

Ingredients

  • 8 limes
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups/12 ounces blanc vermouth
  • 3/4 cup/6 ounces mezcal
  • 3/4 cup/6 ounces cognac or brandy
  • 3 cups/24 ounces club soda
  • 1 (750-milliliter) bottle cold, dry sparkling red wine, Lambrusco or sparkling rosé

Preparation

1. Peel 4 limes and place the peels in a medium bowl (if using a muddler) or a medium jar (if using the end of a rolling pin to muddle); reserve the limes. Add the sugar and work it into the peels until they start to turn slightly translucent, about 2 minutes. Set aside at room temperature for at least 2 hours or overnight.

2. Juice the reserved limes (you should have about 3/4 cup juice; you may need to juice 1 or 2 of the remaining limes) and add to the lime peel mixture. Stir (or cover and shake the jar) until the sugar dissolves. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer, pressing on the solids and transfer to a large bowl. (The mixture can also be stored in an airtight container, in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.)

3. Add the vermouth, mezcal, cognac and 2 cups cold water; stir to combine. Pour the mixture into resealable bottles or jars, and cover and chill in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour or up to 24 hours.

4. To serve, pour the mixture into a large punch or serving bowl. Add the club soda and stir gently to combine. Fill individual punch glasses with ice and ladle the punch into the glasses; top each with a splash of sparkling red wine and a lime slice.

Classic Philadelphia Fish House Punch

Rum and cognac mix with a muddled sugar and lemon mixture, known as oleo-saccharum, and peach brandy in this classic punch, which dates back to the early 18th century. If you can’t find peach brandy (a dry, high-proof brandy distilled from peaches, not the saccharine peach-flavored liqueur) swap in a fruit eau de vie, such as apricot, plum, apple or pear. While this recipe is written to be served cold, it can also be served warm: Skip the ice block and gently warm the punch in a large saucepan or Dutch oven before ladling into small, heatproof mugs or tea cups. Hot or cold, finish each serving with a dusting of freshly grated nutmeg.

Yield: 18 to 20 (4-ounce) drinks

Total time: 15 minutes, plus at least 3 hours’ chilling and resting

Ingredients

  • 4 lemons, peeled
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups/12 ounces Jamaica rum
  • 3/4 cup/6 ounces cognac or brandy
  • 1/4 cup/2 ounces peach brandy or a fruit eau de vie, such as apricot, apple or plum
  • Ice ring or block, for serving (see tip)
  • Freshly grated nutmeg, for serving

Preparation

1. Place the lemon peels in a medium bowl or a large jar, and reserve the lemons. Add the sugar and use a muddler or the end of a rolling pin to work the sugar into the peels until they start to turn slightly translucent, about 2 minutes. Set aside at room temperature for at least 2 hours or overnight.

2. Juice the reserved lemons (you should have about 3/4 cup juice) and add to the mixture. Stir (or cover and shake the jar) until the sugar dissolves. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer, pressing on the solids and transfer to a large bowl. (The mixture can also be stored in an airtight container, in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.)

3. Add the rum, cognac, peach brandy and 6 cups cold water; stir to combine. Pour into resealable bottles or jars, and cover and chill in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour and up to overnight.

4. To serve, unmold the prepared ice ring and add to a punch bowl or serving bowl. Add the punch, then ladle into glasses and grate nutmeg on top of each.

TIPS: At least one day (up to a few days) before you want to serve the punch, make the ice ring or block: Add enough distilled water to come halfway up the sides of a Bundt pan (silicone is best) or other mold that will fit into your punch bowl. Freeze overnight. You can also add decorations: Pour a few inches of distilled water into your chosen mold and layer in edible decorations of your choice: citrus slices, seasonal berries and fruit, fresh herbs, whole spices, edible flowers. (Remember that whatever you choose will eventually end up floating in the punch itself). Freeze for a few hours, then fill the mold with enough water to come halfway up the sides and freeze overnight. (This helps keep your decorations on the top of your final ice ring). If you’re having a hard time getting the ice out of the mold, dip the mold in hot water briefly or quickly run under hot water to help loosen.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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