The Bowl's the Thing
Notes on holiday punch.
Throughout the book, Wondrich uppercases the beverage as "Punch," the capital idea being to distinguish the subject of his investigation from "the degenerate compounds that have usurped its name" and also to distinguish it as a class of drink—"a simple combination of distilled spirits, citrus juice, sugar, water and a little spice." Opening with a 50-odd page history of the drink, the author sorts through legend and hearsay to theorize that punch was a British invention, created by an anonymous junior officer in the East India Company circa 1610. He gives the contours of its supremacy as a tipple in the 1700s, then briefly wonders at the circumstances of its decline as a social institution around the turn of the 19th century: "Ideas of democracy and individualism extended to men's behavior in the barroom, where they were less likely to all settle for the same thing or let someone else choose what they were to drink. ... The flowing bowl would serve out the rest of its days in the twilight land of the special occasion, holiday-gathering drink."
If you are going to attempt only one punch this season, then I am tempted to recommend, unoriginally, Fish House Punch, so named for having been concocted by the men of the Schuylkill Fishing Company, an old Philadelphia angling club. According to one version of its creation myth—one that Wondrich doesn't even trifle with explicitly debunking—a club member whipped it up for a Christmas party in 1848, the first occasion on which women were invited within the clubhouse walls. The aim? "To please the ladies' palates but get them livelier than is their usual wont." Gosling's rum will do nicely; Hiram Walker peach brandy should suffice; choose a cognac that will meld with the lemon to achieve a very special tang.
If you are not going to attempt a punch this season, then I am tempted to recommend especially not attempting Amis' Christmas Punch, which its author calls Jo Bartley's Christmas Punch. You might at first question the seriousness with which he offers the recipe. Amis wants you to gather three bottles of dry or medium-dry Spanish white wine, two bottles of cocktail gin, one bottle of non-cognac brandy, one bottle of British sherry, and one bottle of dry British vermouth. He holds that five quarts of medium-sweet cider will blend these cheap parts into a dynamic whole. He adds, parenthetically, "If you feel like throwing in the unfinished drinks from last night, nobody will notice." The vivid gaiety of that last sentence balances its routine depravity nicely. Sure, throw in the floaters. The soul of punch, like the true spirit of the holidays, is in being all-inclusive.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Photograph by iStockphoto/Thinkstock.