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The Era of Punch

Jane Ryan | 19/04/2016

The flowing bowl of convivial merriment is returning to a cocktail bar near you.

Punch – a word filled with mixed nostalgia and nausea. For many it’s memories of underage parties where peach schnapps, home-brand vodka and melon liqueur were thrown in our parent’s best salad bowl and garnished with some hastily chopped strawberries.

My own father, a wonderful raconteur, tells the brilliant story of bartending for a wedding and noticing all the women downing the punch were hiccupping themselves to sleep in the aisle after two glasses while the beer-guzzling men watched on horrified (this was Australia in the 1970s, casual sexism dictated your beverages). Cleaning up the next day he moved a sheet of plastic and found all the bottles of lemonade he forgot to add. The recipe had been vodka, some more vodka, and a few pieces of floating fruit.

But that was the punch we all knew. It wasn’t careful or exact, it was convivial and merry. It usually tasted like a fist to the guts, a sickly sweet bowl of petrol that you had because it was there, and free, and hopefully contained booze as well as lighter fuel.

It wasn’t always this way. As a drink punch has flirted with popularity for the last 500 years, and for many of those centuries it reigned supreme throughout Britain and her isles as the only mixed drink, the one and singular way to enjoy spirits. But then suddenly you could have a flip, a fizz, a sour or a cobbler. Punch became a drink consigned to the history books (and cheap weddings in Australia apparently). What a rubbish ending for such a wonderful way to mix spirits, a sad resignation from a drink that once ran from every coffee house in London and which symbolised the bravery and ingenuity of the British navy.

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Jamacian flower punch at the Punch Room, London. 

Of course the story doesn’t end there. It might well have but for a few insightful souls who decided that punch deserved a comeback. Ten years ago Nick Strangeway was helping to launch the first Hawksmoor in Spitalfields. Ever a champion of British drinks, Strangeway put together an elaborate and expansive menu of punch serves at Hawksmoor using stunning vintage bowls, ladles and cups. As if they’d been parched for decades, his guests drank the bowls dry and recognising he was on to a good thing Strangeway used the same type of serves two years later when launching HIX in Soho and again in other adventures down the line.

“I had dozens of punch bowls sent over from vintage collections when we first opened Hawksmoor - they were cheap as chips in those days. Punch is a large, fast serve which still involves the bartenders passion for mixed drinks and yet it gets to your table rapidly and lets you enjoy the theatrical element of serving your guests,” says Strangeway.

Punch didn’t return as an old welcome friend overnight. These were small steps, helped by a few New York bars adding similar sections to their menu as Strangeway’s. Then six years ago, in 2010, David Wondrich, without question the most influential, enjoyable and meticulous cocktail historian, published Punch – the delights (and dangers) of the flowing bowl.

Wondrich discovered wonderous things about punch’s back story, including the clever James Ashley, who in 1731 opened the “London Coffee-House and Punch-House” where he sold punch in many different sizes, from single serves up to large communal bowls. Punch was no longer confined to huge, momentous celebrations but could be enjoyed by one or two people, sipped as a quiet nightcap or an early evening enlivener.

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Front cover of Punch by David Wondrich

In Punch, Wondrich also unearthed a multitude of recipes, some which had been lost in the huge pile of history’s discarded favourites. Most importantly that book is nearly 300 pages worth of information on good punches. But what is good punch? What drink takes the same name and yet stands a million miles from whatever abomination my father was trying to make in the early 1970s, even if he had of included the lemonade?

David Wondrich can answer that better than most: “here, then, is the secret Punch’s success: true Punch is wine by other means...you’ll have to learn to balance the spirituous and aqueous elements, so that the drink is soft and pleasant but not insipid; so that the taste and aroma of the base liquor are present enough to remind you that you’re drinking spirits, but with none of the heat or bite."

Still the world didn’t come rushing in 2010, but bit by bit, as if drawn to a punch bowl in the centre of a party, people came to take little sips and understand just what this drink was. The information was out there, and slowly it was disseminating.

London isn’t exactly in full punch fever just yet, but it does have a bar dedicated to serving incredible punches within the Edition Hotel – the Punch Room – a bar that’s been toiling away at changing perceptions and showcasing the consistent and fast-paced service of punch.

Even across the Channel in Paris, you’ll see many bars which have several different sized punch bowls, all stacked to go through the dishwasher and serve another round of imbibers. The flowing bowl is making its way back, and given the dedication in today’s bars, this time it’s hopefully here to stay for good.

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