Food & Drink

Adding punch to cocktail scene

Bar Chef Brendan Dorr shows of one of his "punch for four" concoctions at the <a href=""><b>B&amp;O Brasserie</b></a> on Charles Street.  It's part of a resurgence in the popularity of punch as a type of group drink at bars and restaurants.

Punch is back on the restaurant scene in Baltimore, but be careful. It packs one.

America's oldest cocktail, that mix of spirits, tea, sweet, sour and bitter, is finding a fresh start in the shot glasses and shakers of some of the city's most creative mixologists.

Served in charming vessels for the table to share, punch is proving to be a flavorful avenue to appreciating the cocktail for those who might be put off by the strength of the Manhattan or the martini.

"I've always wanted to do punch on a menu," said Brendan Dorr, the "bar chef" of B&O American Brasserie on Charles Street. He will be one of the experts on hand Thursday night for a lecture and tasting celebrating punch at the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood House Museum.

"I like the history of cocktails, and it is the oldest. And it is fun to share. It gets the table talking," said Dorr, a founding member of the Forgotten Cocktail Club, which puts on events around town.

The word "punch" is a derivative of the Hindi word "panca," which means "five." When it originated in India centuries ago, it had five ingredients: citrus juice, water, arrack (a coarse spirit made of palm tree sap), sugar and spices.

When it migrated to Colonial America, arrack was replaced by rum, which was plentiful because of the molasses trade with the Caribbean, and every tavern had its signature recipe.

(Here's a punch tidbit: The "Planter's Punch," on the menu of tropical restaurants since forever, was supposedly created at The Planters Hotel in St. Louis in the 1940s.)

During the 19th century, anyone of means served punch year-round from elaborate silver punch sets. There were ale punches and milk punches and punches with egg whites. In the winter, punch became a version of wassail, with warm beer, nutmeg, sherry, lemon and sugar.

It was certainly not the ginger ale and lime sherbet concoction of the 1960s.

Punch is just one part of the resurgence of the cocktail, said Dorr. In terms of creativity and attention to fresh ingredients, the bar is starting to catch up to the kitchen.

That's where Corey Polyoka and Connor Rasmussen of Woodberry Kitchen find the elements to build their punch recipes. The restaurant makes its own infused vodkas and liqueurs from fresh ingredients. And if there is a bounty of apricots in the kitchen, Rasmussen will macerate them with alcohol and find a place for them in a punch.

Fresh herbs, blueberries or cranberries in season, a liqueur made from rhubarb, sparkling cider from apples. You can see why Woodberry Kitchen calls its punch "Garden Party."

"We wanted a large-format cocktail for the table to share," said Polyoka. "And if there is someone who is apprehensive about ordering a cocktail, they can try some punch."

Punch is deceptive. It is neither sweet nor sour, if built correctly. And it doesn't have the smash-mouth taste of alcohol you get with a more traditional cocktail. But there are 10 ounces of booze in one of Woodberry Kitchen's little punch pitchers. You just can't taste it.

"Punch is always extremely strong," said Dorr, who created one for his menu called "Wallop to Your Own Beat."

"That's why punch cups were always so small."

For Mr. Rain's Fun House atop the American Visionary Art Museum, Perez Klebahn has created a trio of sangrias that use the five-ingredient punch formula. His Sangria Americano contains peach liqueur and is a bright yellow-orange.

That's the other thing about punch — its colors can be beautiful. Dorr's Wallop is a shining shade of blue-red-purple in the old-fashioned glass milk bottle it's served in. Woodberry's Garden Party, built by Rasmussen, is a light, bright pink-cranberry in its handleless pitcher.

"Punch is a great way to entertain," said Klebahn, who also works closely with the kitchen to create his cocktails. "You can serve it as an aperitif as the guests arrive."

Punches are accessible, he added. "They are quite friendly, a great way to get into cocktails. They open up that doorway."

All three, and Doug Atwell of Rye in Fells Point, will be mixing punch for the event at the Homewood House Museum. Wit & Wisdom in Harbor East has punch on its menu, too.

Just another way to move the Baltimore cocktail scene forward.

"Baltimore is historically a good drinking town," said Klebahn. "We are hoping for a renaissance in the cocktail culture in the city. We have to keep up with the chefs."

Garden Party punch

Makes: 8 to 10 servings

8 ounces house blackberry-infused vodka

4 ounces American dry gin

2 ounces house-made rhubarb liquor (purchased is fine)

4 ounces hard sparkling apple cider

4 ounces fresh-squeezed lemon juice

4 ounces cranberry simple syrup

2 handfulls of diced rhubarb

2 tablespoons powdered sugar (to taste)

Handful of fresh herbs from your garden

Place the rhubarb and the sugar into pitcher/punch bowl and muddle until the sugar is completely dissolved in the rhubarb juice.

Add the rest of the ingredients. Fill with ice. Stir for a minute to a minute and a half. Garnish with fragrant herbs, such as mint or tarragon.

Courtesy of Connor Rasmussen of Woodberry Kitchen

Botanical Bucket

Makes: 10 servings

16 ounces Beefeater 24 Gin

4 ounces Absolut Vodka

6 ounces Maraschino

2 ounces Yellow Chartreuse

8 ounces Lillet

8 ounces lemon juice

6 ounces Agave

Build in a punch bowl or pitcher. Stir thoroughly to mix. Add a large ice mold to chill.

Garnish with lemon wheel and sprig of mint.

Courtesy of Brendan Dorr, bar chef, B&O American Brasserie

Algonquin Bar punch

Makes: 12 to 16 servings

peel from 4 lemons (removed in strips with vegetable peeler)

1/3 cup superfine sugar

2 cups fresh raspberries, divided

3 cups Plymouth Sloe Gin

2 cups fresh lemon juice

11/2 cups Coruba dark Jamaican rum

6 cups ice cubes

1 ice block (made by freezing water in a loaf pan)

2 cups chilled Brut champagne

lemon slices

Place lemon peel strips in large bowl. Add sugar and mash with muddler or wooden spoon to infuse sugar with lemon. Add 1 1/4 cups raspberries and mash to blend.

Pour in sloe gin, lemon juice, and rum. Add ice cubes; stir to blend. Refrigerate punch 20 minutes. Place ice block in punch bowl. Strain punch over ice block into bowl. Add champagne; stir to blend. Garnish with lemon slices and remaining raspberries.

Recipe re-created by the Clover Club Bar in Brooklyn, N.Y.

If you go

"An Evening of Traditional Beverages: Punch!" runs 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday at Homewood House Museum, 3400 N. Charles St. $35 for museum members, $45 for nonmembers. Space is limited. Call 410-516-5589 for ticket availability.

Punch tips

•Always use good-quality alcohol and fresh fruit in your punch recipes. You will taste the difference, and so will your guests.

•Decorate with edible flowers, or slices of orange or cucumbers. Garnish with fresh herbs, cranberries, blueberries, cinnamon sticks or curls of lemon zest.

•Punch is most refreshing when it is very cold. To keep it that way, freeze some punch — before you add the alcohol — in an ice cube tray or an ice ring. Add fruit to the ice.

•You don't need a punch bowl or punch cups. Use a glass pitcher — so the color shines through — and highball glasses or champagne flutes.

•Use tea instead of water to give the punch more strength. Stir the sugar until it dissolves completely. Add the bubbly ingredient at the last minute to keep the fizz.

•If you want a nonalcohol punch, use a champagne punch recipe and substitute sparkling water.

•When making large batches, mix by taste and not by math. The proportions may be off. The key to a good punch? No ingredient should be tasted over another.