Pleasing Punches: Yesterday's party staple making a creative comeback

By Robin Watson
Special to The Detroit News

If the word “punch” conjures up flashbacks of lime-sherbet icebergs calving off in a sea of Vernors — or worse, end-of-semester garbage punches from your college days — you’re not alone.

But real punch — really good punch — is having a moment. Bartenders and home cooks alike are rediscovering and reimagining punch, whose origin dates back to at least the 17th century and, prior to the cocktail era, was a top tipple.

Whether rejiggered as a “batch cocktail,” ladled from a traditional large serving bowl or poured from a pitcher, a well-crafted punch is just plain festive, which makes it perfect for the holiday season. It satisfies the thirst people have for more flavorful beverages and feeds into the current hunger for fresh local/regional ingredients. Moreover, it taps into demand for sharing experiences at the table.

“There's something special and communal about all of the guests ladling out from the same source,” says Charles Joly, founder of Crafthouse Cocktails in Chicago. “Pragmatically, it also is a great way to serve many people at once, so the host can attend to conversation and simply be a host, as opposed to being tied to the bar the entire evening.”

Here’s how to punch up your party.

Bowman Family Fruit Punch

The mix

“The beauty of punch is that you can use nearly anything to create it,” says the James Beard Award-winning Joly, who was the 2014 Diageo Reserve World Class Bartender of the Year. “There's a bit of an art to it, balancing the strong, sour, sweet and weak.”

Boozy punch. The standard formula, Joly explains, features a base spirit, citrus, sweetener for balance, spicing and a dilutant to stretch the recipe. “Nearly any base spirit,” he notes, “can make a suitable foundation: bourbon, rum, cognac, gin and all of their brethren distillates can set the tone.”

Whatever you use, experts say, don’t go overboard.

“Punch is intended to be sipped throughout the evening,” Joly advises. “You want something that won't knock guests out in short order.”

Nonalcoholic punch. Be creative. Use a variety of ingredients to create intoxicating layers of flavor. Teas, shrubs, interesting infusions and kombucha can build compelling nonalcoholic punch, Joly suggests. Coconut water, fresh pineapple, cinnamon sticks and star anise are among the ingredients in the Palm Tree Shade Bowl, developed by Denver-based Punch Bowl Social, which operates a unit in Detroit.


Add visual appeal with large slices of fruit and/or herb sprigs that you can maneuver the ladle around. No one likes being smacked in the face with maraschino cherries when they raise their cup.


Pre-chill punch and your serving vessel. Use a bowl or other container to create a block of ice that fits what you use. Ice cubes melt quickly, diluting punch too fast.


Add fizzy elements — sparkling mineral water, soda or champagne — just before serving. Adding champagne is the simplest way to transform a nonalcoholic punch into a boozy one.


Part of punch’s appeal is that it looks so gorgeous on the table. Considerations:

Punch bowls. Glass and crystal show off a punch’s vibrant color best. For very low-priced bowls, look to resale shops, such as Goodwill (especially for retro choices). Large glass compote dishes, salad bowls, pitchers and carafes also work.

Cups/glasses. Go small with these, as they bring your guests back to the punch bowl again and again, enhancing the social experience. Gather up a low-cost, eclectic assortment from resale shops. Other good options: sherry glasses and vintage teapcups.

The ladle. Choose an attractive one that pours well and feels good in the hand.

Bowman Family Fruit Punch

(Adapted from “Family Recipes from Rosedown & Catalpa Plantations”)

1 cup                   water

2 cups                 sugar

1 cup                   fresh-brewed hot tea

2 cups                 strawberry juice*

6                         lemons, juiced

6                         oranges, juiced

20-ounce can       crushed pineapple

3 cups                 ice water

750 ml., or          Pellegrino or other sparkling water

to taste

* Available at Super Greenland, Dearborn. (313) 584-5445. Or, blend 1/2 cup of strawberry syrup with 2 cups of water.


Put 1 cup of water and 2 cups of sugar in a saucepan. Boil for 10 minutes. Transfer to a large mixing bowl. Add the hot tea, strawberry, lemon and orange juices and the crushed pineapple. Let rest for 30 minutes. Strain into a punch bowl. Add the ice water. Stir. Gently place a block of ice in the punch. Add the sparkling water just before serving.

 The Guild Meeting Punch

(Recipe courtesy of Charles Joly)


2 ounces    vanilla sugar*

6 pieces      orange peel

16 ounces   fresh-brewed, strong chai tea

4 ounces     fresh orange juice

2 ounces     fresh lemon juice

2 ounces     ginger liqueur

2 ounces     Drambuie

6 ounces     Bulleit Rye, or comparable whiskey

To taste      lemons, thin-sliced into wheels

To taste      oranges, thin-sliced into wheels

To taste      nutmeg

*Create vanilla sugar by placing a split vanilla bean into a sealed container of sugar for at least 24 hours.


Place the vanilla sugar in a punch bowl. Using a vegetable peeler, cut 6 strips of orange peel. Combine the peel with the vanilla sugar and muddle to extract the orange oil. Let the peels marry with the sugar as long as possible (up to 1 day; as little as a few minutes). Pour the brewed tea over the sugar mixture. Stir to dissolve. Add the remaining ingredients. Stir to combine. Add a large block of ice when ready to serve. To garnish, float the lemon and orange wheels in the punch. Grate nutmeg over the punch.

Celebrate Good Times! C’mon! Punch is ready to party.

 Celebrate Good Times! C’mon!

From Punch Bowl Social

4 ounces fresh lemon juice

8 ounces strawberry syrup

8 ounces Rumhaven, or other coconut rum

20 ounces sparkling rose wine 

2 strawberries, sliced

2 long sprigs, fresh rosemary

 Using a tin with a lid, mix together all the ingredients except for the fresh strawberries and rosemary sprigs. Add ice, place the lid on the tin and shake vigorously for 7 seconds. Strain the mixture into a punch bowl. Add ice. Garnish by slightly fanning out the strawberry slices to form 2 “roses” placed side by side. Place the rosemary sprigs so that they form the stems for the “roses.”