Caribbean, generally (1700s)
Truth is, I’ve been remiss. Planter’s Punch certainly qualifies as a “basic drink,” one of perhaps a handful of core templates that inspire countless variations. You have the “cocktail” Old Fashioned (template: spirit, sugar, bitters, rock ice), the “aromatic” Martini (template: 2:1 spirit / aromatized wine, served up), the “sour” Daiquiri (template: 2:1:1 spirit / citrus / sweet, up), the… um… “Collins” Tom Collins (template: 2:1:1 spirit / citrus / sweet with dilution & bubbles, served tall), and the punch – simply a large-format Collins with the addition of spice. Some other oddball drinks are out there, either part of a smaller family or black sheep out on their own: drinks like Egg Nog, Irish Coffee, Ramos Gin Fizz. The world of cocktails is chaotic and resists tidy taxonomy. But some rules do apply, whether these drinks like it or not.
So, as a punch, this came to British and Dutch sailors by way of the Caribbean – and from there to the world. Punch was all the rage in Colonial America and held dominance at the local watering hole until the mid-1800s, when the pace of life quickened and people just couldn’t take the time to spend hours imbibing socially. I can’t imagine what they would think of today’s world, poor souls. Drinks became reduced down to individual portions, and the Planter’s Punch in particular was a popular novelty for tourists visiting Jamaica’s Hotel Titchfield and Myrtle Bank Hotel. Myers’s Rum even rebranded their labels as the Planter’s Punch rum in the 1930s. You may have heard different versions of this rhyming recipe for punch: “one of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak, and a touch of spice to make it nice.” The sour is typically lime, the sweet is almost always just simple syrup (but a bit of grenadine is not uncommon), the strong is our old buddy rum, and the weak is dilution – from shaking with ice, from serving over ice, and from seltzer. The spice is simply Angostura bitters, potent with Caribbean spices like cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg.
Now, were we to strictly follow that singsong rhyme, this drink would come out unbalanced. That 1-2-3-4-5 thing works in a punch bowl, where moderate dilution is welcome. Punch (in that format) is meant to be sipped communally over a long conversation. This is more of a solitary sipper – better suited to a lazy afternoon in the hammock. Side note: progressing from its popularity as a tropical refresher, Planter’s Punch became the inspiration for many successful tall tiki drinks beginning with Don the Beachcomber’s Zombie. When dimensionalized into a tiki drink, the strong component can change from one rum to four rums. The sweet can be a mix of multiple syrups and tropical flavors. Spice is often integrated into the syrups, like the ginger kick in falernum or the allspice in pimento dram. Try this simple, direct version – then give the tiki approach a go and see what you come up with!
Hardware: Shaker, Jigger, Barspoon, Cocktail pick, Straw (optional)
Ice: Ice cubes, Cracked ice
Glassware: Collins glass
Spirits: Dark Jamaican rum (recommended: Coruba)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Simple syrup, Seltzer (or sparkling mineral water (recommended: Pellegrino))
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Lime juice, Lime wheel
In a shaker about a third-full with ice cubes, add:
2 oz dark Jamaican rum
1 oz lime juice
3/4 oz simple syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Shake well to blend and chill, then strain into a Collins glass filled about two-thirds of the way up with cracked ice. Top with:
1 1/2 oz seltzer
Stir lightly to blend and garnish with a lime wheel. Optionally, serve with a straw.
The Edison, Los Angeles, CA (2008)
There’s been a bit of a resurgence in punch these last couple years, led by two fronts. One is from craft bartenders wanting to make sure everyone in a crowded bar gets a quick drink when the line starts backing up. The other is David Wondrich, booze historian, and his fascinating book “Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl.” And for good reason: one of the simplest ways to make sure a large party is sufficiently quenched is with a big bowl of punch. Sure, it’s a bit of work upfront that you’ll need to plan far ahead for, but it frees you – the host – to kick back a bit when your guests arrive. They’ll serve themselves and gather around the punch bowl just like in Colonial times. Nice how some things never change!
This particular recipe comes from The Edison in Downtown Los Angeles. Of all the punch recipes I’ve tried recently, this one knocks the rest to the mat with one tap. Delicious, just strong enough, and perfectly balanced. Plus, you’ll pick up a fancy new word to bandy about: “oleosaccharum.” This is another place to use that batch of homemade grenadine you made – please don’t use that fake toxic-red shit.
Look for glass punch bowl sets at thrift stores or estate sales. You’ll find fantastic-looking vintage pieces, sometimes even complete sets with a dozen or more punch cups, edge hooks, and a ladle. I regularly see them in my area for under $20.
To maintain dilution when you serve your punch, you’ll want to hand-fashion a large block of ice instead of using ice cubes, which would melt too quickly…
Easy Ice: Find a freezer-safe bowl that fits well inside your punch bowl, with plenty of room for ladling around the edges. Fill the bowl with water and let freeze overnight. When ready, take the ice out, invert the bowl on the counter, and let it drop out (takes a few minutes).
Not-So-Easy (But Really Freaking Awesome) Ice: Fill a small Igloo lunch cooler with water and let freeze 36 hours. When frozen through, invert the cooler in the sink and let it thaw a bit, then slide out. It’ll take some time – but don’t worry, it’ll announce itself when it drops. You won’t miss it. Wearing protective gloves and using a bread knife, carefully carve away the slush and cloudiness at the bottom of the block to reveal a huge hunk of crystal-clear beauty. Round the corners by sawing and hacking, then shape the block to fit your punch bowl. When finished, you can store the block in a gallon Ziploc in your freezer until needed.
Hardware: Measuring cups & spoons, Muddler, Strainer, Slotted spoon
Ice: Ice block
Glassware: Punch bowl & punch cups (with ladle)
Spirits: Bourbon whiskey (recommended: Wild Turkey 81, Woodford Reserve, Buffalo Trace)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Lemon oleosaccharum, Grenadine, Champagne
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Lemon juice, Angostura bitters
Peel from end to end, avoiding the bitter white pith:
Reserve peeled lemons for juicing. In the punch bowl, combine peels with:
10 tablespoons superfine sugar (not Confectioner’s / Powdered Sugar – run regular white sugar through a dry electric blender if you can’t get superfine)
Muddle well to abrade lemon peel and begin expressing zest oils into the sugar. Stir to combine and let sit at least one hour, stirring occasionally. It’s done when the sugar is no longer gritty and the lemon syrup is smooth and fragrant.
To the oleosaccharum in the punch bowl, add:
4 cups bourbon whiskey (works out to an entire 750 ml bottle plus more)
2 cups lemon juice (strained well to remove pulp and small seeds)
1 cup grenadine
8 dashes Angostura bitters
1 1/2 cups cold water
Stir to blend, then using a hand-held strainer or slotted spoon, remove the lemon peels, making sure they don’t bring any of that oleosaccharum with them. Refrigerate, covered, until ready to serve. Just before your guests arrive, add the ice block and:
1 1/2 cups Champagne (about a quarter of a 750 ml bottle)
Stir to blend and then relax. You’re done.
MAKES 20 SERVINGS