For more holiday beverage ideas, read J. Bryan Lowder on why a make-your-own champagne cocktail bar is perfect for your next festive gathering.
Punch—not the blow, not the magazine, but the drink—lends a sense of old-timey grandiosity to any event. “On the 25th October 1694,” 19th-century Scottish polymath Robert Chambers wrote in his Book of Days, “Admiral Edward Russell, then commanding the Mediterranean fleet, gave a grand entertainment at Alicant [the port city in Spain].” This party, according to Chambers, included a fountain converted into a “Titanic punch-bowl,” holding
four hogsheads of brandy, one pipe of Malaga wine, twenty gallons of lime-juice, twenty-five hundred lemons, thirteen hundredweight of fine white sugar, five pounds’ weight of grated nutmegs, three hundred toasted biscuits [ed note: GROSS, though this was traditional], and eight hogsheads of water.
The whole shebang was covered by a canopy, and a “ship-boy” rowed a boat purpose-built for the occasion around to the 6,000 guests whose cups needed filling.
I used to love invoking this sense of bounty at my own much more modest (and less imperialist!) entertainments. I also very much liked that putting out a punch bowl and a stack of glasses took “making cocktails” off my list of hostly duties. Now that I don’t drink very much anymore (insomnia, parenthood), it makes me sad to think that serving punch at my celebrations might be a thing of the past.
So, this holiday season, I’m going to rage against the dying of the light by making nonalcoholic “punch.” Booze-free punch still looks nice in the bowl; kids, pregnant people, and all manner of nondrinkers can enjoy most versions of it; and the tipplers can always fall back on their beer and wine. Here are three ways to make it happen.
Put a booze-free punch in the bowl, but make it one that adapts easily to the addition of alcohol, and offer a bottle on the side for those who like that tipsy mistletoe-and-holly feeling. This Southern Living recipe for cranberry–Key lime punch gives guests that kind of flexibility.
The cranberry simple syrup and Key lime juice (get real Key limes; they’re a pain to juice, but it’s the holidays!) make the base of the punch interesting enough to stand on its own, and cranberries and citrus are an excellent counterpoint to that deliciously rich feast you’ll be serving. Put a bottle of Tito’s Vodka next to the bowl, for those who want to add something extra.
Serve a milk-based punch, like Bon Appétit’s warm milk punch with Indian spices. This recipe goes heavy on the spice—cardamom, clove, cinnamon sticks, ginger, Darjeeling tea (like this one from Vahdam), and orange peel—giving it a complexity that makes it feel a little lighter than eggnog. Though the recipe calls for low-fat milk, I’d use something a little richer. (Obviously, you’ll want to exercise some caution in allowing the toddlers in your group to partake, since caffeine is involved! Or opt for decaf tea if that better suits your small guests.) Since this one is warm, you may want to forgo your glass punch bowl and serve it in a slightly less beautiful but far more functional crockpot or Instant Pot.
Go heavy on the lemons. Lemons—their juice, and the oil in their peels, when combined with sugar—are an intrinsic part of old-school punch recipes. The clerk Wilkins Micawber, in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, regained his characteristic optimism after a downturn in fortune by making a bowl of punch. “I never saw a man so thoroughly enjoy himself amid the fragrance of lemon-peel and sugar, the odor of burning rum, and the steam of boiling water, as Mr. Micawber did that afternoon,” observes David Copperfield of his friend’s transformation. Food & Wine has a great explanation of why this combination of citrus oils and sugar, called oleo-saccharum, is so important for punch. It has something to do infusing citrus evenly throughout the drink, but the stuff also smells so, so special, and will lift anyone’s spirits.
Rosemary–Meyer Lemon “Punch”
Muddle peels and rosemary sprigs with sugar. Let mixture sit for 30 minutes. (Sniff occasionally to enjoy the Meyer lemons, which I swear are the fruits of heaven.) Pour in lemon juice; strain out peels. Mix can be made ahead and refrigerated.
For 1 liter of punch:
¾ cup Meyer lemon oleo-saccharum
¾ cup additional Meyer lemon juice
1¼ cup seltzer or water
1 cup Seedlip “Garden” nonalcoholic spirit, or more seltzer
Extra rosemary sprigs and Meyer lemon slices for the ice block (see below)
To lend an even more festive spirit to your punch: Freeze a round of ice into a Bundt pan to make a fancy, slow-melting block for the center of your punch bowl. For this recipe, you could freeze Meyer lemon rounds and sprigs of rosemary into the water; for the cranberry-lime one above, you could do cranberries and lime slices or get creative and include orange slices or pomegranate seeds. Here are good instructions for doing that, and here are a couple of beautiful, festive pans that I’d love an excuse to buy. (Or, use the ones you’ve got!)
There’s one more charming thing about punch: It gives you a reason to buy a beautiful piece of equipment—and that excuse still holds if you’re serving the unboozy variety. Nineteenth-century doctor and man of letters Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a poem called “On Lending a Punch-Bowl” that waxed rhapsodic on everything his antique punch bowl had seen:
I love the memory of the past,—its pressed yet fragrant flowers,—
The moss that clothes its broken walls,—the ivy on its towers;—
Nay, this poor bawble it bequeathed,—my eyes grow moist and dim,
To think of all the vanished joys that danced around its brim.
Typical punch bowls of 2019 are much less fancy than the ones from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries that you can view in collections like that of Delaware’s Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library. Not many people have bowls like Holmes’, featuring cherubs with rubbable noses. But if you have the space to store it, buy a nicer punch bowl like this elegant one from Crate & Barrel and imagine your children using it to celebrate whatever New Year’s has turned into in 2069.
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