As we head into the festive season you are going to need to arm yourself with more than the occasional libation. An ice-cold brew out of an esky is fine and there's nothing wrong with a bottle of wine. But what ever happened to that grand old party beverage, punch?
Before you think I've lost the plot and have poured a little too much 'g' into my 't', give me a moment to explain. You see, we're not talking about some sticky mixture of booze and ersatz juice you might have come across at a party at uni, but rather a drinking tradition that dates back hundreds of years.
A real punch is a work of love – the king of drinks before the rise of bartenders, their waxed moustaches and fancy single-serve concoctions. A real punch is deliciously smooth – an excellent delivery device for hard liquor – and a convivial centrepiece for social gatherings. Comprised of liquor, water, sugar, citrus and spice, punches were meticulously crafted for any important occasion for hundreds of years.
So where did punch lose its way? Why don't we still drink it now? Of course, as with any yarn involving a substantial quantity of drink, the details have been lost in a succession of sore heads and sketchy accounts of the night before the morning after. But we can surmise that punch went out of fashion to make way for convenience and fast-paced modern living.
Gone are the days where a group of gentleman could gather around a flowing bowl and partake until themselves or the vessel in front of them was defeated. Instead, bars dispense a raft of single-serve beverages that for all intents and purposes have evolved only a little since their invention in the mid-1800s.
As the bars let punch fall by the wayside, so too have hosts dropped it from their repertoire. Punch, however, has as a distinct advantage over cocktails if you're entertaining at home. Prepared in advance of your work celebration, barbeque or similar festive occasion, you can simply hand your guest a cup and wave them in the direction of the punchbowl. The guests will have a special, caringly crafted beverage without the need for you to break into a sweat or cut a conversation mid-sentence.
Punches help avoid some cocktail mixing disasters, too. There's nothing worse than an amateur getting into your kitchen at a party and whipping up a stomach-curdling mix of peach schnapps, Tabasco sauce and cream. Or cracking open that bottle of 30-year-old scotch you were saving for a special occasion.
I personally get a thrill out of being a generous host, and punch has saved me many a time from the trap of being stuck in the kitchen fixing drinks. The art of entertaining is not only making sure your guests are catered for, but making sure you're spending time conversing with them, too.
Here's one of my favourites – a classic recipe from an exclusive men's club called the Schuylkill Fishing Company (also known as the 'Fish House') in Philadelphia. This punch was first compounded in 1732.
1 bottle Jamaican rum (or something high ester like an Australian overproof rum) ½ bottle cognac 120ml Peach brandy (a quality French peach liqueur works fine) 500ml fresh lemon juice (about 2kg lemons) 1 ½ cups castor sugar 1L boiling water
Peel your lemons before juicing and place the peels in a large bowl. Add the sugar and work the peels with the back of a wooden spoon to extract a bit of the zesty oil. Add the boiling water and stir to dissolve all the sugar. Add lemon juice and booze. Chill the whole mix overnight to allow the flavours to mingle. An hour before serving slip in the largest block of ice you can find (a steel bowl filled with water makes a great mold). Forget the fruit. Garnish with plenty of freshly grated nutmeg.