A lot of people love punch, but not too many people know that punch is the oldest form of mixed beverage in the world. The first mention of punch dates back to before the 1700s, way before modern techniques of distillation or mixology—even before refrigeration. In fact, punch far predates the modern cocktail. Essentially, people began making punch to mask the flavors of poorly distilled spirits. But, even back then, they would create punch to serve a group. Punch really came about as a large-format drink for a group of people and a good way to entertain people.
Going even deeper, the history of punch can be traced to an Indian word, “paunch,” which literally translates to “five.” Before they even had a name for it, they referred to the five elements of punch: sweet, sour, strong, weak and spice. This can be credited to the East India Trading Company that traded in spices mainly and contributed to the globalization of North and South America. These traders were finding ingredients from all over the world and using them in their punches.
These five elements of punch create balance in the drink. Technically, sweet refers to sugar or syrup. Sour is the citrus, and strong is the base spirit—typically, in the early colonial days, this was rum from the Caribbean islands or made in the colonies themselves. Weak is the element that helps stretch the punch to make it suitable for a large group, because you can’t just pour a bunch of alcohol in a bowl and expect people to behave themselves. That weak element helps balance the drink, and that was typically tea. People today use sparkling wine, champagne and soda water, too. As for the spice, that was typically nutmeg. In the past, nutmeg was one of the most sought-after spices—worth much more than its weight in gold—and it pairs naturally with rum. These elements all came together to make what they were drinking palatable and even delicious.
There’s actually an old quote to help you remember the ratio of the ingredients: “One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, and four of weak.” If you break down the parts, that one of sour might be a cup of lemon or lime juice, while two of sweet might be the simple syrup you make. The three of strong is the base spirit, be it rum, gin or bourbon. And the four of weak is typically tea or even water. Now, we don’t always follow that formula, since it depends on the tea or spirit we’re using. After all, the goal of modern punch is to be light and refreshing or maybe even tart and sweet. Cocktails are all formulas, and it’s the balance of the ingredients that makes them delicious.
As for the fifth element of spice, we often incorporate it as a garnish or it might be a spice within the spirit or tea we use or even a drinking vinegar or shrub. At Punch Bowl Social, we work with Teakoe Tea, a local Denver company that specializes in designing herbal teas to be iced teas, which helps us brew consistent batches for our punches.
At Punch Bowl Social, people are looking for an experience. They are usually coming in groups, marking an occasion, celebrating a graduation or just enjoying happy hour. Due to the nature of our brand and the things we offer, punch is the perfect pairing for this because it brings people together. People love to order a punch bowl for the table, and it’s a great way to welcome groups. We like to encourage our guests booking parties to put some punch out at the start. What a great way to kick off an event, by pouring a glass! Our recipes are designed to be drinkable and balanced, so that everyone can appreciate the flavors.
Plus, punch is so much easier when hosting a group, whether you’ve booked an event at Punch Bowl Social or are entertaining at home or elsewhere. Just a little prep and you’re done, with a much more consistent result than if you were stirring up individual Manhattans. Of course, we offer nonalcoholic punch as well, because we want everyone to be included. From our Old School classic cocktails and New School signature drinks to our Preschool nonalcoholic drinks, our beverage program is designed to give everyone a chance to participate with something special.
Patrick Williams is the national beverage director at Punch Bowl Social. He helped open the flagship location at 65 Broadway in Denver in 2012, and is part of the team growing the concept across the nation.