Monday, December 13, 2010

Liquid: Punch drunk

Photo: JOEL VEAK

Holiday party at your place, dude. I've got some bad news though. First of all, I apologize in advance for spilling cheese dip all over the couch. Second, and more importantly, I'm going to have to request that you up your drinking options from last year's bland spread. It's not enough to just throw a few bottles of off-brand vodka and gas-station wine on the counter beside a bucket of ice. But don't worry: you don't have to play bartender all night. Make a punch in advance, and you can spend the evening getting sloshed with your guests as a good host should. A punch that tastes great and shows a little creativity doesn't take a PhD in mixology to pull off, but here are a few expert tips on making a festive brew. 

Don't run out of booze. No booze = no friends. That's one recipe you can count on. A fairly good formula is that one gallon of punch works out to about 30 five-ounce servings, so consider your guest list and make the appropriate calculations. Of course, if your friends are anything like my group of ornery winos, you might be better off hiding the punch under lock and key and doling that stuff out like a stingy soup-kitchen staffer. 

Keep it simple. Matt Coughlin of Aquitaine (569 Tremont Street, Boston, 617.424.8577) just held a holiday punch-making party at his bar, and one of the most important lessons he tried to impart is to take it easy. "Usually people do too much," he says. "Keep one base spirit, and just use something that tastes good to put in it." Coughlin used apple cider, cranberry puree, and a simple citrus mixer as bases for the three punches he featured at his party, and he mixed most of the ingredients in advance. "I told everybody there, the punch party is at six; I started doing everything at four, and we had punches for about 70 people." See? Pretty painless. Head to stuffboston.com for his complete recipes, along with more ideas from Brian Poe of Poe's Kitchen at The Rattlesnake, Michael Florence of Pigalle, and Kelly Coggins of Bistro du Midi.

Less booze is more. Don't just throw everything you have on hand into a bowl and expect the accolades to roll in. Headaches and face plants are more likely. People often use a bizarre mix of juices and spirits and hope for the best, but potluck punch is a recipe for disaster. The sweetness of the juices in a lot of punches makes it easy to lose track of just how much you're drinking, so pour carefully. "You want people to feel good, but you don't want them to be falling down after the first drink," says Coughlin. Adding sparkling water can help throw the breaks on the quaffability factor; it's also a cheap and efficient way to brighten up a dull blend and give the flavors of the juices a little pep. Sparkling wine can do the same - that is, if your recipe isn't already too boozy.

Ice is key. You don't want your bowl of punch sitting out all day getting watered down by ice. Kelly Coggins of Bistro du Midi (272 Boylston Street, Boston, 617.426.7878) says that's one of the biggest mistakes hosts make. Instead, keep the bowl refrigerated until the guests arrive, or else get larger blocks of ice that won't be so quick to melt over the course of the evening. You can purchase a block of ice easily from any ice purveyor, or make your own molds at home if you really want to get fancy. Ideally, the punch should get better over time, not worse. "In all good punches, the flavors start to marry and meld the more time they have together," Coggins says.

Let it go. After you've done the prep work, it's time to actually enjoy the party. If you plan ahead with a solid recipe like the ones we have online, make sure your guests are well lubricated (but not too well lubricated), and keep the bowl filled, everything else is going to fall into place. Unless you invite me over, in which case the only thing that's going to be falling is your expensive lamp into the coffee table. 

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