How About a Nice Holiday Punch?

By Tim McNally

When do you suppose the beverage punch got such a bad reputation? It was not from hanging around unsavory characters, unless you are not a fan of rum. And it was not because classmates at Spirits High School talked bad about punch in biology class.

The only thing I can figure is that punch was tagged with a bad rep when adults began freezing Jell-O in a mold and dumping the whole shebang into the punch bowl with some soda water. Or maybe it was when punch began to be made with all sorts of fresh and frozen fruit, and then some sweet carbonated drink was added to the cut-glass punch bowl, followed by the addition of 2 cups of sugar, with the hostess then exhorting: “Come try this. You are going to love it.” Wrong.

Later in the evening, when all the guests are bug-eyed and climbing walls due to sugar shock, she wonders about food poisoning caused by the little weenies on toothpicks swimming in barbecue sauce that also contained unfathomable amounts of sugar.

Somewhere along the line, punch fell in with a bad crowd, and we all vowed that if there were a big bowl and a ladle in the middle of the table when we walked into a party, we were going to time ourselves, wait no more than 40 minutes and then get the hell out of there. The presence of punch was an indicator of questionable taste in food and décor.

But it was not always so.

According to David Wondrich, noted author and Esquire magazine’s resident expert on adult beverages, punch is actually the early basis for just about every drink that was to follow, including the entire classification we now know as “cocktails.”

Wondrich, incidentally, will be in New Orleans this coming Monday, Dec. 6, for an appearance at the Museum of the American Cocktail where the topic of his seminar will be, coincidentally, punch. David is shamelessly flogging his new book, Punch, just released and already quite a best-seller during this holiday season. (See end of this article for information on tickets to the lecture/tasting.)

The book, by the way, is terrific, as are the other Wondrich volumes, Imbibe!, Killer Cocktails and Esquire Drinks  When David is not writing, he’s drinking in preparation for writing. Good gig.

The actual name of David’s latest book is Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl (Perigee Trade, $23.95)

To be clear, Wondrich is a big fan of the category, punches. And not just because he got another book deal out of the topic, though that had to enter into the equation somewhere. No, it’s because punch is an easy way to entertain.

“You are not stuck behind the bar or table mixing all manner of drinks,” David noted in a moment of very clear thinking. “You mix one giant drink, and then you are free to join your own party and enjoy yourself.”

Punch, Wondrich notes, based on circumstantial evidence, was probably invented sometime in the early 1600s by English sailors who were working in the North Sea and around northern Europe. Once on board, they could not keep quantities of beer for the entire crew because beer was not pasteurized in those days, and it went bad. Wine went too quickly, and extended periods of ship’s movement and salt air did not provide ideal storage conditions.

Punch was invented because it could be made fresh, providing interesting flavors with a controlled alcohol content. This was about 150 years before the first mention of cocktails in any publication.

Charles Dickens loved punch and took great pleasure in creating different concoctions, even to lighting the liquor on fire, which is a great piece of showmanship but burns off the alcohol. But even Dickens in his lifetime realized that punch was going out of style, or so says Wondrich, who has studied Dickens’ correspondence to determine the great author’s attitudes on the subject.

I wonder if Dickens ever had an inkling that a whole subculture would arise not from his literary works but from his letters about preparing alcoholic beverages and then enjoying them. Gives new meaning to, “May I have some more, please, sir.”

Wondrich, if you have not deduced by now, is not just an author of books about alcohol but also a historian. He dives into his subject and pulls up amazing bits of flotsam and jetsam from everywhere, weaving them together into the connected pieces of the human experience they always were.

He is, in short, the type of guy you would love to drink with. Steven Colbert –– yes, of the Colbert Report on Comedy Central cable television network –– enjoyed his time with David, even noting after a few drinks that David was looking pretty good. Best not to go there, but the video is here.

The guy obviously bears watching, and you can do just that at the Museum of the American Cocktail, located in the Riverwalk, this Monday evening at 6:30, where David Wondrich will not just lecture, but also serve some of the featured punches from his book, which bears the fully explanatory sub-subtitle, An Anecdotal History of the Original Monarch of Mixed Drinks, With More Than Forty Historic Recipes, Fully Annotated, and a Complete Course in the Lost Art of Compounding Punch.

Tickets are $30 in advance and $35 at the door if there is room. Buy your tickets now. This will be a seminar you will be talking about for a long, long time.

Plus how many other seminars and book authors serve drinks during the lecture. Where was this guy when I was in college?  

Punch recipes excerpted from Punch by David Wondrich

Martell Cognac Punch Royal
Note: To make a 1-quart block of ice, fill a cleaned 1-quart milk carton with water and place in the freezer. When frozen, peel away the carton.

The peel of 3 lemons, each cut in a 1/2-inch-wide spiral with a vegetable peeler 

6 ounces (3/4 cup) superfine sugar

6 ounces (3/4 cup) fresh-squeezed, strained lemon juice

25 ounces (one 750-milliliter bottle) Martell VSOP cognac

12 ounces (1 1/2 cups) Sandeman Founder’s Reserve port

24 ounces (3 cups) cold water


Muddle the lemon peels and the sugar together, and let sit for at least 20 minutes. Then muddle again, and stir in the lemon juice. Add the cognac, port and water, and stir. Keep refrigerated until ready to serve. To serve, pour into a 1-gallon punch bowl with a 1-quart block of ice, and grate nutmeg over the top.

Royal Hibernian Punch

Prepare an oleosaccharum* with the peel of three lemons and 6 ounces of white sugar. Add 6 ounces strained lemon juice, and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Add to this 12 ounces Sandeman Rainwater Madeira, stir, and pour the Madeira shrub into a clean 750-milliliter bottle. Add enough water to the bottle to fill it, seal, and refrigerate. Fill another clean 750-milliliter bottle with filtered water, and refrigerate that too.
To serve, pour the bottle of the shrub, the bottle of water and one 750-milliliter bottle of Jameson 12 or Redbreast Irish whiskey into a gallon punch bowl, add a 1.5-quart block of ice, and grate nutmeg over the top.

* Oleosaccharum (medical definition): 1. A class of preparations made by the trituration of a volatile oil (anise, fennel, lemon, etc.) with sugar; used as a diluent or corrigent of powerful or bad-tasting drugs in powder form. Synonym: oil sugar.

Light Guard Punch
1 bottle cognac
4 lemons, sliced into thin rings
1 pineapple, sliced into thin rings
1 bottle pale sherry
1 375-milliliter bottle Sauternes
4 ounces superfine sugar
3 bottles champagne

In a large container, combine the cognac with the lemons and pineapple. Place in the refrigerator, and let steep for 3 to 4 hours or overnight. In a 2-gallon punch bowl, add the sherry and Sauternes; add the sugar, and let it dissolve. Once the sugar has dissolved, add the cognac-fruit mixture, the champagne and enough ice to chill. Ladle into glasses, and serve.

The Wine Show with Tim McNally can be heard every Sunday from noon to 2 p.m. on WIST-AM 690.

About Tim McNally:  Tim learned to appreciate wine from his wife-to-be, Brenda Maitland, and it has been a fascinating 35-year journey for the couple. Tim graduated from Jesuit College Prep in Dallas, then earned a journalism degree from the University of North Texas. He came to Louisiana because of his love of New Orleans, then fell in love with Brenda and simultaneously fell in love with all things wine.

Tim and Brenda travel the world with the grape and have made many friends because of wine. Tim is a past board member and two-term president of the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience; former officer in the New Orleans chapter of Chaine des Rotisseurs; past president of the American Wine Society in New Orleans; and, with Brenda, currently serves on the board of the Museum of the American Cocktail. Tim lectures on wine and wine history twice each year at the School of Hotel and Restaurant Management at Auburn University, as well as judging professional wine competitions in California and Florida.

Tim writes a monthly feature about wine and spirits for New Orleans Magazine, and is a weekly contributor, writing about wine and spirits, to He is also executive editor of Gulf Coast Wine and Dine Magazine, and hosts a two-hour weekly program, “The Wine Show,” on WIST 690AM in New Orleans. Listen to “The Wine Show” every Sunday from 12:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. 

To read this and other posts by Tim, please see:

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