I've been big a fan of cocktail historian, Esquire drinks columnist, and memorable "The Colbert Report" guest, David Wondrich's work ever since I first cracked open his James Beard Award-winning book IMBIBE! in 2007. And so I was especially keen to get my hands on his latest offering, PUNCH: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl, which just released this week.
You can put all those college memories of technicolor swill mixed in plastic tubs behind you. PUNCH is a recipe-rich, history-steeped tribute to a festive family of drinks sipped by everyone from Jonathan Swift to Charles Dickens to Jane Austen to George Washington. As David Wondrich notes in the Preface, "The fact that nobody's published a real book about Punch before is in and of itself a remarkable thing."
Like IMBIBE!, PUNCH stays true to the antique, but by no means staid, spirit of its old timey, black-and-white-etching-illustrated subject matter, while somehow managing to keep current, relevant, and fresh. Peppered with modern pop culture references and snappy quotes from 17th and 18th Century lit and letters, PUNCH is a rollickingly fun read.
The History Bits
The first 50 pages or so are given to a history of the "monarch of mixed drinks." We get a discussion why punch probably did not, as commonly believed, originate in India; a look at its popularization among British sailors as a means of warding off thirst, hunger, boredom, and scurvy; and an account of how the drink likely found its way into upper-class, landlubbing society.
Wondrich contemplates the ideal ratios of weak, sweet, and watery ingredients; explains why the difference between a cocktail and a punch is more than a mere matter of serving style; and also tackles the many practical challenges of adapting centuries-old recipes.
The 44 recipes span a wide range of centuries and styles. On the one hand, we have Bombay Presidency Punch, a 17th Century concoction featuring a liquor called Goa arak in combination with that old perfumier's favorite, ambergris - or clotted whale cholesterol (and yes, this book will tell you where you can buy some of each). And on the other, we have Wondrich's own decidedly 20th Century creation, Quick and Dirty Punch, which features ingredients you're more likely to encounter at your neighborhood grocery and liquor stores such as Newman's Own Lightly Sweetened Lemonade and Jim Beam. But these two recipes are at the extremes: The remaining 42 will keep you measuring and mixing, ladling and sipping somewhere in between.
Each recipe is written, interpreted and/or adapted so as to be as user-friendly as possible for the modern mixologist. Don't have a silver punch service in your china hutch at home? A large Chinese soup bowl with matching small cups from a restaurant supply store is an inexpensive yet elegant substitute. Not sure what type of rum/gin/whiskey to choose? Wondrich offers brand-specific suggestions tailored to each recipe. Want to keep your hot punch hot but don't find it convenient to place it in a cloth-covered jug before a roaring fire? Use your slow cooker. Cold? You're at a real advantage over your 18th Century counterparts here. Freeze large slabs of ice in plastic containers.
Recipes for Right Now
Holiday party season's fast approaching, and a good punch can be a real crowd-pleaser. How about some Yale College Punch circa 1869, featuring Champagne, club soda, sugar, and pineapple? Or that old favorite, Philadelphia Fish-House Punch, made with lemon or lime juice, water, sugar, rum, Cognac, and peach brandy? Yum.
• Buy the book: PUNCH: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl by David Wondrich, $16.29 at Amazon.com.
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Nora Maynard is a longtime home mixologist and an occasional instructor at NYC's Astor Center. She is a contributor to The Business of Food: Encyclopedia of the Food and Drink Industries and is the recipient of the American Egg Board Fellowship in culinary writing at the Writers' Colony at Dairy Hollow. She previously covered food and drink in film at The Kitchn in her weekly column, The Celluloid Pantry.
(Image: Perigee/Penguin Group (USA) Inc.)