Appetite: David Wondrich on Punch

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When cocktail historian and Esquire columnist David Wondrich speaks about drink, you listen -- or read, as the case may be. His latest book Punch, debuts Nov. 2, the first of its kind on the glories and history of the punch bowl. I had the privilege of speaking with Dave over the phone from his New York home. The question at hand: why punch? Or to quote from the book, what makes punch "necessary"?

Wondrich stands by his punch bowl. He tells me it's “the greatest social beverage of all time," that "now more than ever we need beverages that promote friendship.” He calls punch “more gentle than cocktails”, its preparation “easy and utterly pleasurable.” The punch bowl is communal, ideal for a group or festive gathering, less laborious than individual cocktails, and a hell of a lot more fun. As Dave states in the book's preface: "most of punch's stories are of warm fellowship, and conviviality, and high-spirited gatherings afloat on oceans of witty talk" -- not to mention a few "battles and brawls."

We're not talking about "frat juice" here. We're talking honest-to-God punch: boozy yet delicious, layered with citrus, raw sugar, and varying spirits. The book starts with a comprehensive history -- who drank punch and where. Wondrich says the book started as a big chunk cut out of his first book Imbibe.

The convivial punch houses of antiquity that feature in Punch sound so appealing that I ask Dave if he envisions their return. "I certainly hope so," he replies. Besides Rickhouse here in SF, some of his favorite bars for punch around the globe include Hix in London, Brooklyn's Clover Club (which lies a dangerously close distance from his present location), and Manhattan's Death & Co. He's also a fan of Savoy Cocktail Night at SF's own Alembic (hear, hear!)

Like most classic concoctions, the name of punch's first mixologist has been lost to the sands of time -- though there are countless early references to the drink. One of Wondrich's strongest sources is Google Books, where he digs up old newspapers, pamphlets, and rare books before he cross references them in the libraries of New York and London. Another research source?  "I am trained as an academic so I have a lot of 1600s books," he says. "I start with a lot of blank space and start to fill that in using every kind of source possible... I'll track down the original source, and don’t settle for first mention.”

I asked if he'd ever write the book he wishes existed, a dream mentioned on page six of Punch, which is a detailed source on distilling, the drink's origins, its history, and importance. He says it's a project “too big for any one person to bite off, unless they have all the time in the world and know multiple languages." Wondrich says he "could tackle parts of it." He estimates that it would take at least three co-writers: someone fluent in Dutch, German, Chinese, and Indian.

What we're more likely to see Wondrich write about next is how the American style of drinking -- particularly our contributions in cocktails and spirits -- went global. He's already done "tons of research" for past presentations on the subject. Spots of particular interest for him include our country's legendary World's Fair cocktail showcases and the way the techniques they highlighted spread across the rest of the globe. 

Wondrich expects the section called Book II of his recently released Punch will be limited to "total mixology geeks." But I found Book II a useful, necessary account of the ingredients, tools, and proper measurements needed for the drink, particularly his recommendations for spirits in the "Ingredients" chapter.

A good half of Punch is recipes, ranging from Milk Punch to American Fancy Punch. When asked which ones he makes the most, Wondrich named the bracing Chatham Artillery punch on page 248 (a Savannah original, a poorly-crafted version of which I've imbibed whilst walking down the city's streets). Back in the day, a local paper described this punch thusly: "as a vanquisher of men its equal has never been found." Dave says the recipe in this book (there's yet another included in Imbibe!) “claims to be the original, and very well might be,” though when it comes to  traditional recipes "they get passed down like a game of telephone,” each iteration evolving from the last.

One of his biggest crowd-pleasers -- which he says people consume in "shocking amounts" -- is his own recipe of Royal Hibernian punch (p. 269):

Prepare an oleo-saccharum with the peel of three lemons and six ounces of white sugar. Add six 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 1/2 quart block of ice and grate nutmeg over the top.

Yield: 9 1/2 cups.

 

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