THE BLOG
07/17/2014 01:09 pm ET Updated Sep 16, 2014

Punch Drunk... Boozy Fun in a Bowl

I've always thought of boozy punch as a hangover in a bowl--a sugary spiked concoction that you'll regret in the morning. But these days, in our current handcrafted cocktail crazed age, punches are actually tasty libations that pack a wallop.

Fun fact: Punch actually predates the cocktail. And according to cocktail historian David Wondrich, who penned Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl, punch came into vogue sometime in the 16th or 17th century as naval officers made their way to various Indian subcontinents. Punch started as a sailors' drink and was communal as officers and seamen would often imbibe together. There's even tale of people way back when using Blackbeard's skull as a punch bowl.

Rumor has it the word punch derives from the Indian word "ponch," which means "five" because punch back in the day was a simple drink made out of five ingredients: spirit, citrus, sugar, spice and water. This rule still applies today. The base spirit can be whatever you want: gin, rum, scotch, cognac, mezcal, you name it. Lemon and orange are ideal for citrus, sugar helps to balance the acidity, and spice opens the flavor.

These days, bars and clubs are easing up on the term "bottle service" (a practice where 'game less' gents have to buy a table, which usually comes with a bottle or two of booze to attract thirsty females) and instead overcharge on a bowl of punch. This practice didn't help win me over to the world of punch.

Likewise, when my friend Mark professed his love for his college dorm creation The Flaming Rodent, made with Woodchuck Cider and Fire Water Cinnamon Schnapps served in red solo cups of course, that didn't do much to persuade me that punch isn't always followed by a nasty hangover.

But since summertime seems to be the perfect occasion for punch (see recipes below), especially with backyard barbeques being the rage, I decided to dive headfirst into the punch bowl. An aspect I immediately loved about drinking out of a bowl is the communal aspect. There's no waiting; it's immediate gratification. All you have to say is, "Gimmie some of that!"

Head over to the new Pasadena punch bar aptly named Punch and you'll enter into a whole new world where the drinks are more than just a pirate's beverage of choice. Founded by Corazon y Miel bartenders Robin Chopra and Darwin Manahan, these guys love their punch, from its rich history to all the complexities that come with making handcrafted punch cocktails.

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Spend just a few minutes at Punch and you'll notice the constant pounding of bartenders breaking ice. Who knew punch was so labor intensive?

"We have to do everything in bulk and by hand," Manahan explains. "I like to give that job to the angriest person or someone working through issues."

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While Darwin is a definite Wondrich devotee, the punches at Punch tend to be slightly stiffer than the cocktail historian prefers (Wondrich believes punch should be wine strength and not cocktail strength).

"To each their own palette," Manahan says. "Let's do whatever and have fun with it, otherwise it just sets restrictions. Punch is cocktails at its simplest form. People get really drunk on punch. They never see it coming."

Another fan of potent punch is Sonny's Hideaway bar manager John Kelly O'Hare who stocks overproof booze and whose punch is so strong he can't serve it in a bowl--it's ordered and poured by the glass. If you're making a night of it at this Highland Park bar, a designated driver or Uber or Lyft is the way to go.

At Sonny's Hideaway, the punch sits for at least 24 hours before it can be served in a glass. And Kelly is definitively taking a new turn with his punches by using mangoes and plums, as well as bitters and even absinthe to counter balance sugary or creamy taste, boasting it almost "creates a new taste."

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"My punches derive from the idea of a creating a cocktail originally," Kelly says, "then I start thinking how it would change. I like to keep pushing the envelope--keep adding to the story, whether it's punch or cocktails."

Looking for high octane punches in the San Fernando Valley? Then new (secret) hotspot Tunnel Bar just off Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks is your go-to place where Beverage director Adam Weisblatt serves stiff, classic punches at this hidden gem.

"We're doing traditional punches, which are very strong," Weisblatt points out. "We wanted things steeped in tradition; Americana; and taste delicious.

The high octane punches at Tunnel Bar cannot be served to less than a group of four. A favorite is the historic Fish House Punch, first served in Philadelphia in 1732. President Washington was a fan of this rum-based drink, which consists of cognac, rum, more rum, peach liqueur, lemon, seltzer, and served on a huge rock.

If you've ever been intimidated by playing at-home mixologist, making punch is a lot less stressful. Keep in mind if you're making a homemade brew, chances are you'll make the first bowlful before guests arrive so you can play around with things before you have an audience watching your every move.

"There's less technique involved in making punch," explains Weisblatt, "there's no stirring; no shaking. It's less intensive because of the volume."

Another tasty punch at Tunnel Bar is the Red Lemon Branch, made with Bulleit Bourbon, Campari, lemon, grapefruit, and champagne. And if you want to make this one as a cocktail, simply scale down the ingredients to 1 oz bourbon, ½ oz Campari and 2 ½ oz of champagne.

With punch, it's really about the sharing/communal experience.

"It's not a 'How's your drink?' experience," says Weisblatt. "It's family style and gives people time to talk. The short drink was developed out of punch. Punch goes back to the days of Captain Hook."

If you're in the Fairfax District close to Midtown Los Angeles, Tart on Fairfax Avenue is your punch headquarters. There, General Manager and Sommelier Mary Thompson serves primetime punches to the masses. A whole sized bowl, which includes an entire bottle of booze, costs only $40 and a half bowl is $25. It's the best boozy deal in town. A weekend favorite is the Whole Family, which includes a whole bottle of vodka, which Thompson describes as "a mimosa gone wild."

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Personally, I'm a fan of the Blackballing Punch, which consists of homemade blackberry vodka, orange and cranberry with blueberries thrown into the punch for good measure. Speaking of favorites, the new and unnamed Tequila Punch, a refreshing mix of tequila, lavender syrup, sprite and lime, is one of the best drinks I've had all summer--it's ideal for day drinking.

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"It's meant to be social," Thompson says of the punch experience. "You really are part of a group breaking bread. It's a cool way to do that. 'Pour me some. Give me more ice.'"

When asked what makes a good punch, Thompson is quick to answer.

"It's all about the quality of the ingredients. If you have good ingredients, then you don't have the hangover waiting to happen. Everything we do here is ingredient centric. It's just who we are."

Because brilliant minds think alike, Nancy Kwon, Beverage Director and Head Bartender at Copper Still Bar concurs about quality ingredients being paramount.

"I would say the most important thing to remember when putting a punch or any mixed drink together is to always use the best quality ingredients. This seems like an obvious point but actually, many people think that it is alright to use inferior ingredients when cooking or making punch because the inherent flaws can seemingly be covered up. However, these flaws will definitely always be there in the end product, no matter how much you try to mask them. Also, make sure you are always using a natural, less processed type of sweetener for the sugar base in your punches and make sure it is not from a bunch of high fructose corn syrup."

Now that I'm a punch convert and can't get enough of Tart's new tequila punch, I'm open to most spirits thrown into the bowl. So imagine my surprise when Greg Cohen, Corporate Communications Director for Patron Spirits Company, suggested using Patron, a pretty high end tequila, as a mixing spirit.

"High end tequila like Patron is so versatile," Cohen says. "We hear Patron is too precious for a margarita, but better spirits make better drinks. Patron Silver for a punch might be best with fruit juices and lemons and limes, almost like sangria. People think of tequila as something you have to shoot or mask with lime, but over the past few years, people have come to appreciate it as a sophisticated spirit. It's very exciting to see. Tequila has a natural flavor, which enhances so many cocktails. It's very versatile. Tequila can be spicy, salty or sweet."

Respected barman Marcos Tello, a renowned L.A. cocktail consultant with Tello-Demarest Liquid Assets, and The Hospitality Collective, is more of a purist when it comes to cocktail punches. He too adheres to the five-ingredient recipe: sweet (sugar), sour (citrus), strong (spirit), weak (ice or water), and spice (bitters).

"Punch in essence needs to be wine strength so it should never be a big, huge cocktail. It should always have some sort of lengthier like a carbonated lengthier or water or tea to lengthen it and it should never be cocktail strength; almost aperitif strength. Ratio is very, very important. If you just try to bomb people with punch, it almost defeats the purpose. It should be served almost like an appetizer. You don't serve people an 8oz filet mignon as an appetizer. If you're putting in a liter of vodka and you're making punch for 40 people, then fine. Punches are more based on ratios than by bottle."

If you're making your own punches, it's best to plan ahead and pre-batch. Copper Still Bar's Nancy Kwon offers the following advice.

"You want to make sure your punch has time to marry the flavors within. Punches are one of the few mixed drinks that actually get better with a little time to rest. Keep it refrigerated and as cold as possible all the way up through serving time. And do not over dilute! This is definitely the biggest and most common problem I see with punches. Make sure you use good ice, whether you choose to use a big block floated in the punch bowl or have it available on the side to be added in to the individual serving glass, you want to make sure it is dry and dense so that it won't immediately melt as soon as it hits the punch.

"If you decide to serve the ice in the punch bowl, make sure to separate and set aside a good portion of the undiluted punch beforehand (preferably in the refrigerator) so that it can be added in as needed as the party goes on," Kwon continues. "That way you won't have just one big bowl of watered down punch halfway through the party."

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Below, Kwon offers a couple of punch recipes that are total knockouts.

Dr. Salmon's Punch
3 pints good quality brandy
12 oz. Key lime juice (freshly-pressed)
3/4 lb. superfine sugar
1.5 - 2 quarts water
1 whole nutmeg

Mix together the water, lime juice, and sugar until dissolved. Add in the brandy and stir well together. Grate in 1/2 the nutmeg. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Just before serving, pour in a punch bowl over a large block of ice or serve large cold ice cubes on the side to be added in to the individual serving cups, and grate the rest of the nutmeg over the bowl.

Planter's Punch
3 cups Wray & Nephew White Overproof Rum
24 dashes Angostura aromatic bitters
12 oz. Key lime juice (freshly-pressed)
1 cup superfine sugar
12-18 oz. water
Citrus wheels and/or seasonal berries

Mix together the water, lime juice, and sugar until dissolved. Add in the rum and bitters, and stir well together. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Just before serving, pour in a punch bowl over a large block of ice or serve large cold ice cubes on the side to be added in to the individual serving cups, and add in the citrus wheels and/or berries.

Punch...it's not just for kiddy parties anymore. I think our pirate friends were onto something--boozy communal goodness for all!

Pictured above: Darwin Manahan prepping punch at Punch, and John Kelly O'Hare pouring punch in a glass at Sonny's Hideaway.

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