Mark Ludmon reports in Bar magazine on the revival of punch and how bars are experimenting
When Davide Segat opened Punch Room at The London Edition hotel nearly five years ago, it was considered a bit of a risk to serve only the historic but relatively unfashionable drink of punch. “We didn’t know if people might not want punch,” he recalls. “When we started, we had only 10 but over the past two years we have developed the menu, with different sections, and now have over 30.”
Punch has often been used in some bars and clubs as a generic term for a sharing cocktail but, thanks to specialists like Punch Room and bartenders exploring the serve’s origins, more places are now specialising in it. For Punch Room, it was partly born out of necessity as there was little room for a bar and it made practical sense to have a short list of drinks that could be prepped in advance. But Davide was also passionate about punch after exploring it in his previous role at Hawksmoor Spitalfields with co-founder Nick Strangeway. “To me, punch has always been on trend,” he adds.
Punch is considered the oldest style of cocktail, first written about in the 17th century and possibly taking its name from the Hindi for “five” as it is traditionally made with five types of ingredients: alcohol, water or tea, citrus, sugar and spice. It became popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, especially as an everyday drink in British taverns, mostly as a way to balance the flavours of rum or the Indonesian molasses spirit, arrack.
However, the more recent revival in punches in the UK owes much to the serve becoming part of the strategy for Courvoisier cognac nearly 10 years ago and also being promoted by cognac producers via the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC). This winter, one of the bestselling drinks in The Lobby Bar at One Aldwych in London was The Bishop’s Punch, made with Courvoisier VSOP infused with saffron sourced personally by bar manager Pedro Paulo from farms in the mountains of Morocco. It was mixed with orange liqueur and three different freshly squeezed juices including pomegranate and finished with Perrier-Jouët Grand Cru champagne. “Cognac is a very complex spirit base, therefore it lends a great depth and flavour to a punch,” Pedro explains. “Cognac’s distinctive character remains even when it is mixed with several other ingredients.”
As Davide and his team at Punch Room demonstrate, punches can be made with any kind of spirit. With head of bar operations Andy Shannon and Eric Van Holst working on a new menu for this spring, the bar currently offers punches made with mezcal, genever, gin, vodka, tequila, bourbon and scotch as well as rum, cognac and arrack. “Rum is traditionally what they used but that is because they used what they had,” Davide explains. “If they had had mezcal, they would have used that.” Although Punch Room mostly sticks to the rule of five, Davide sees no reason to stick to this. “It’s not written in stone. You can have good punches with 15 ingredients, and we have one with only four.”
This is the Soldier’s Camping Punch made with Copper Dog whisky plus cold brew coffee, maple syrup and Amaro Montenegro foam, inspired by a rum and brandy recipe from Harry Johnson’s 1882 bartender’s manual. Copper Dog also featured in the Bakewell Punch at Drake & Morgan’s The Sipping Room in West India Quay in London Docklands this winter, combined with berry cider, apple juice and orgeat. It was designed to bring new drinkers to the scotch category, explains the recipe’s creator, Nicci Stringfellow from Diageo Reserve. “We’ve seen a recent surge of punches being introduced to menus across the globe,” she says. “It instantly introduces an element of theatre to a bar and, at the same time, encourages customers to spend more with increased dwell time.”
Drinks company Hi-Spirits is increasingly being asked by operators for punch-style serves for its brands including vodka. One of the more successful recipes has been the sharing Fruit Punch made with Our/London Vodka, Lazzaroni Amaretto, lemon juice, grenadine, apple juice, pineapple juice and cranberry juice. “Consumer interest in the heritage and provenance of different cocktail styles shows no sign of slowing down, and as part of that trend, punch is definitely having its moment in the spotlight,” says Hi-Spirits managing director Dan Bolton. “Punch not only has an interesting story to tell about its origins – whichever version you believe – but also works well on a range of cocktail menus, from ‘big night out’ sharing options to premium drinks.” But it is deceptively difficult to make a genuinely good punch, he adds. “There’s a good case for applying the ‘gin and tonic test’ to punch in pubs and bars – it’s a drink that everyone thinks they can make, but when you’re served a really well-made punch, you know you’re in a venue that cares about getting their drinks right.”
One place that cares about punch is Nuala Bar which opened in Shoreditch in London in December. Its punches include a mix of Redbreast 12 Year Old Irish whiskey, Guinness, applejack, aromatic wine, oolong tea and citrus and another combining Tequila Cabeza, habanero chilli, mezcal, kümmel, tomato water and lime. What distinguishes punch from other mixed drinks is the “element of fun and sharing”, says bar manager Spencer Large. “Unlike many cocktails, drinking punch isn’t so much about the drink itself, but more about the experience had whilst knocking it back.”
While the Nuala team are well versed in the history of punch, they are not restrained by the rules, he adds. “We wanted to keep at least one of the classic elements that could help distinguish the punch to any cocktail historians, so all of our punches do start off with an oleo saccharum base, made by infusing sugar with citrus oils, which we then build upon and have a bit of fun with. I think any solid restrictions when it comes to making punch, or any overly precious treatment of the category, kind of removes that accessible approachability. We just want to make some tasty drinks that people enjoy, and if some guests look further into it and appreciate the work that goes into each of them behind the scenes, that’s simply a bonus.”
The versatility of punch recipes is one of the reasons for its success, points out EmmaLi Stenhouse, brand ambassador for Sailor Jerry spiced rum. “A classic rum punch is accessible and appeals to a wide audience, especially those new to the rum category and exploring new cocktails as it’s generally sweet and fruity. It can be tailored to suit a variety of tastes and is reminiscent of sipping on something fruity and alcoholic on a beach. In bars, a punch is a simple starting point when creating fun, accessible cocktails, which can then be the basis to more complex drinks or remain as the guilty pleasure we all enjoy.”
Driving awareness and education around punch for both the trade and consumers is part of the strategy for Banks Rum in 2018, from training and on-trade kits to collaborative menu listings and bar takeovers, hosted by European brand ambassador Alison Bartrop. Focusing on the five classic ingredients, the message will be around “simplicity”, says the rum’s global brand director, Magali Podesta, at Bacardi. “Every element can be prepared before serving, freeing up the bartenders to engage with their guests, and allowing them to serve a high-quality cocktail at pace during busy times.”
For Banks (pictured), punch has the virtue of being versatile enough to be on menus in all seasons and for different occasions, Magali adds. “It can be enjoyed after work or before a meal like any cocktail, but also enjoyed as a sessionable drink over the course of an evening, like people used to do when gathering around the ‘flowing bowl’. The key to this is how it is made: a high-quality punch is essentially a craft cocktail made on a larger volume. It benefits from being pre-made, giving the ingredients time to infuse and mature, from the oleo saccharums to the infusions and syrups.”
At The Wigmore in London, Banks has been used for their version of a clarified milk punch – an historic technique of adding milk to the alcoholic mixture and straining off the whey to create a cocktail with a creamy texture. “The clarified milk punch is a bartender’s dream drink,” says head bartender Steve Georgiou. “It has a long history, a funky method of production, it’s super tasty and has shock value when served: where’s the milk? You can be creative and playful in coming up with recipes and once made it will last for a very long time meaning you can batch a lot at once and then it’s an easy pour, either straight out of the fridge, over ice or topped with soda, meaning more time to spend with your guests.”
The clarified milk punch has been added to the menu at all 33 of Be At One bars in the form of its Monkey Punch, made with El Dorado 5 Year Old Gold Rum and a mix of ingredients including banana and Coco Pops, created by the group’s head of development, Neil Phillips, with El Dorado’s UK brand ambassador Dean MacGregor. At Punch Room, the English Milk Punch is a rich mix of Havana Club 7 Year Old Rum, Hennessy Fine de Cognac, Somerset cider brandy, Van Oosten Batavia Arrack, milk oolong tea, pineapple, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, star anise, orris, angelica, coriander seed and lemon juice plus full-fat milk. But Davide plays around with the classic recipe in the Egg Wine Punch, using egg instead of milk plus red wine, Woodford Reserve bourbon, Vermouth Del Professore, citric acid and salt. “The milk punch is a drink that very few bars could afford the time to make in volume but we were set up to do it,” he says. “Now you are seeing it more as bartenders are allowed more time to prepare drinks.” As it is one of the bar’s bestsellers, it may remain on the next menu due in March 2018 but details are under wraps. While the list will draw on punch’s history, you can expect some inventive twists. “Now that we have a bit of a following, we can experiment,” Davide adds.
Case study: Bobby Fitzpatrick
With its 1970s concept, Bobby Fitzpatrick bar in West Hampstead in London serves punches in beautiful, retro bowls for up to 12 guests, developed by Alessandro Paludet. “A bowl of punch is a great way to bring people together,” he says “There’s beauty in sharing it with friends and helping yourself and refilling the cup once, twice or three times.” His top tip for a good punch is to extract the citrus oils before squeezing in the fruit’s juice. The bar’s menu features his take on a classic Fish House Punch, believed to date back to Philadelphia in the late 18th century.
Fish House Punch
400ml Appleton Estate Signature Blend rum
200ml Martell VS cognac
100ml Briottet Crème de Pêche liqueur
350ml Lemon and peppermint sherbet
To make the sherbet, combine 350g of sugar, 3.5g of salt, 5g of loose peppermint tea and 150g of lemon zest in a large bowl, stir, cover and macerate overnight. Add 550ml of lemon juice and stir to dissolve the sugar. Fine strain. Keep refrigerated. Add it with the other ingredients into a bowl filled with ice and stir. Garnish with a can of peaches in syrup.
Case study: Café Pacifico
Ponche Pa’l Frio, meaning punch for the cold, added some Latin warmth over the winter at London Mexican restaurant Café Pacifico, using the bar’s own tepache made of pineapple and pineapple skin, piloncillo whole cane sugar and dark Mexican beer and spices.
Ponche Pa’l Frio
40ml Tonka-infused reposado tequila
20ml Homemade tepache
10ml Oleo saccharum
20ml Fresh lime juice
10ml Fresh pomegranate juice
20ml Fresh mandarin juice
2 drops Mandarin bitters
Shake all ingredients with ice cubes to the count of 15. Serve over cubes in a punch glass. Garnish with a dehydrated mandarin slice and grated nutmeg.
Case study: Cariño at Bar TwentySeven in Amsterdam
Eric van Beek, head bartender at Bar TwentySeven in Amsterdam, won the Netherlands heat of this year’s Bacardí Legacy cocktail competition with a punch-inspired serve, Cariño, which is fresh and zesty, with a slight hint of cream and a herbal finish.
50ml Bacardi 8 Años
30ml Greek yogurt
20ml Vanilla syrup 2:1
10ml Lemon juice
5ml Yellow chartreuse
Shake the ingredients and strain into a Nick & Nora glass. Garnish with grated nutmeg.
Originally published in the February 2018 print edition of Bar magazine.