Summer is in full swing and warm evenings make me want nothing more than to invite a few friends over, put on some music and sip refreshing cocktails under the stars.
However, as much as I love to play bartender, it’s hard to relax and enjoy the boozy banter and laughter if I’m stuck in the kitchen mixing drinks all night. Enter punch. With punch, you can make a big batch in advance and when the guests arrive all you have to do is hand out glasses and argue over a playlist.
Now, I know what you might be thinking: punch is way too sweet, soaked in sugar and faux fruit flavors. You might believe punch is something served at terrible holiday mixers, ladled into plastic red cups and abandoned shortly thereafter in favor of a decent beer. Or you might feel that punch belongs only in juice boxes and at raucous college parties you can’t even remember.
Not so, my friends. When crafted properly, a good punch is actually full of depth, complexity and balanced flavor profiles that will make your guests’ eyes light up with surprise. But there are a few rules.
The rule of five
In order to make a quality punch, you should always include these five complementary elements:
- One part citrus
- Two parts sweetener
- Three parts base spirit
- Four parts dilution
- A bit of herb or spice
There are endless ways to build this formula, but none of them should involve red food coloring or a sugar-spiked hangover. Some elements can even be combined. For instance, chai masala can fulfill both your dilution and your spice requirements. Or—and this brings us to another major point—you can combine your citrus and your sweet in a little something called oleo saccharum.
Some people will say that you have no business making punch in the first place without oleo saccharum. But…what is it?
Basically, it’s a syrup made from citrus oil and sugar. Simply use a vegetable peeler to pull away the zest of your favorite citrus fruit (avoiding the white pith), muddle with some sugar (1-2oz per zested fruit) and let it sit for about 6 hours.
Unlike citrus juice, these rich oils will give you a soft, deep flavor that’s less like lemonade and more like sherbert. This also allows you to add sweet and sour components to your punch without further dilution. Plus, everyone will be very impressed with your craftiness, so you really can’t lose.
You can still make delicious summer punches without oleo saccharum, but in any case, incorporating citrus peel is highly recommended if you want to achieve the subtleties and balance of an amazing summer punch.
Here are a few ideas to get you started.
What if you didn’t plan ahead and you don’t have 6 hours to extract citrus oil before your guests arrive? You can use heat to expedite the process. In this recipe, I’ve found such an approach to work just fine—but if you have the time to let your syrup form overnight, you’ll get even better results.
First, make a basil-lime syrup:
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup water
- zest from 6 limes
- 1/4 cup fresh basil leaves
Simmer everything on low heat for 30 minutes, let cool and strain. If you have the time, skip the stove: let the limes, sugar and basil mingle overnight, then strain and add 1/2 cup water instead of a full cup.
Once that’s done, combine all your ingredients in a pretty punch bowl:
- 6 oz fresh lime juice
- 12 oz basil-lime syrup
- 18 oz gin
- 24 oz peppermint tea (loose leaf works best)
The peppermint and basil lend a cool herbal wash that plays well with the botanicals in the gin, and it’s all balanced out nicely by the tart lime.
Summer Piña Punch
Another way to pull the oils from your citrus peel is by using your base spirit instead of sugar. In this case, that’s exactly what I do because the ginger beer and pineapple juice already bring plenty of sweetness to the table.
Here’s what you’ll need:
- 3 oz fresh lemon juice
- 3 oz fresh lime juice
- 12 oz fresh pineapple juice
- 12 oz ginger beer
- 12 oz sparkling mineral water
- 18 oz citrus peel-infused vodka
First, peel the zest from your citrus. Combine it with the vodka, muddle to release the oils and let it sit to do its thing for a couple hours. Once it’s time to mix, strain the vodka out and combine it with the other ingredients.
Black Bear Bourbon Punch
When we think of summer punches, bourbon may not be the first thing that comes to mind. Iced tea, however, certainly makes sense, and this spin on peach iced tea will make you forget you had any other plans today.
Make yourself some oleo, then combine the following:
- 4 oz lemon oleo saccharum
- 6 oz red vermouth
- 12 oz peach juice
- 14 oz bourbon
- 24 oz black iced tea
- 6 dashes Angostura bitters
Also: a note on chilling
What about ice? If you just drop a few standard ice cubes into your punch bowl, it won’t be long before they melt and you have a warm, diluted drink that no one wants. What’s to be done?
Option one: make some giant, giant ice cubes. You can use a plastic mixing bowl, some spare Tupperware, or even a bunt cake pan to create amazingly large ice. It will take longer to freeze, but also much longer to melt—and it looks really impressive.
Option two: I’ve started collecting swing-top bottles for my pre-mixed cocktails. After mixing, I use a funnel to transfer my punch to bottles, then put them in the fridge before the party. They can continue to live in the fridge throughout the gathering, coming out only when it’s time to pour over a glass of fresh ice.