You think you know what punch is, but I'm pretty sure you have no idea.
You think it's the fruity stuff in a big bowl, often pinkish, with fruit floating in it. The pretty liquid you see when you search for "bowl of punch" on Pinterest. The stuff that appears in magazines a dozen times for every time someone actually makes it in real life for a party. You think punch is the "punch" that was invented around the early 20th century, after everyone had forgotten what the good, old punch was supposed to taste like.
Modern fruity punch isn't all that tasty -- or at any rate, it isn't worth the effort. That's why no one makes it.
Punch used to be, and ideally still is, something both more spartan and more delicious -- and, dare I say, manlier. It should be based around spirits, water, sugar, spice and citrus. Except the citrus is in juice form, not sliced up as peels and left to turn soggy and gross. It's something like a hand-shaken daiquiri, but made on a larger scale.
We know this thanks to David Wondrich's fantastic 2010 book Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl (Perigee, $30). Wondrich hopes to instruct a new generation on the deceptively simple and unadorned punches of yore (i.e., the 17th through 19th centuries). These were thirstily consumed by pirates and lords and ladies and rogues and students and Charles Dickens. In other words, everyone.
In addition to rollicking anecdotes, the book is full of wonderful and simple punch recipes such as the one below. It's based around coconut arrack, which is a Sri Lankan spirit available in my home province of Ontario as of about a year ago. If you can't find any of that, this recipe could potentially work with cachaça (a spirit similar to rum from Brazil), but I've not tried that.
What I have done is make this punch twice for parties, and it's been a hit with guests.
But first, a public service announcement: "Be forewarned," Wondrich writes, for a Brit residing in India wrote in 1676 that "the usuall [sic] effect of that accursed Bombay punch" sees its consumers "besotting themselves with drunkenness" and then quarelling, duelling and committing misdeeds 'to the shame, scandall, and ruine of our nation.' "
If you can't imagine your guests descending into those kinds of shenanigans, proceed. I've found the easiest way is to prepare a sort of punch mix (usually just a mix of citrus juice and sugar) ahead of time. You can put it in a bottle until the party starts. Then you can add other things: booze, water and ice.
But first, buy a big -- and I mean big -- food container. I've got ones that are about 1.9 liters, or 8 cups. Fill it with water and put in the freezer for 24 hours, to be sure it has time to freeze. What you end up with is one big ice block to dunk into the punch, which will keep it cold without diluting it too much.
BOMBAY PRESIDENCY PUNCH
• 3/4 cup fresh lime juice (at least eight limes' worth)
• 3/4 cup jaggery or palm sugar (if available; otherwise substitute cane sugar)
• 4 cups water, or more to taste
• 1 750 mL bottle coconut arrack
• whole nutmeg
Method: Squeeze enough limes to get 3/4 cup of juice; add to sugar in a bowl and stir well, until dissolved. Add water and arrack; stir. Grate a bit of nutmeg overtop.
Incidentally, I've crunched the numbers and, for your and your guests' information, the resulting punch is around 8 percent alcohol, assuming you use 40 percent alcohol arrack. The above recipe makes roughly 35-40 three-ounce servings; you can of course scale everything up for a larger group.