It’s Saturday night, and Workshop Kitchen + Bar, in downtown Palm Springs, is buzzing. The bar is full—and the drink tickets are piling up.
A party of 12 walks in the door. A complicated cocktail order could put the bartenders in the weeds, or sink the ship entirely. (Full disclosure: I work at Workshop and its sister bar/restaurant, Truss and Twine—so trust me, I know.) Instead, Workshop bar manager Michelle Bearden deftly pours a pre-batched drink into a large antique punch bowl, tosses in a block of ice, sprinkles some micro edible flowers over the top, and—voila! The group’s first round is ready.
Punch, America’s first cocktail, is a win-win for the bartender and the guest, and is a perfect option for a party at home.
Bearden first realized the magic of the punch bowl when attending Orange County Bartenders Cabinet meetings, where roughly 50 groggy bartenders might show up at once, looking for a little hair of the dog. The punch bowls allowed attendees to get a drink in their hands before they started introducing themselves and mingling.
Bearden calls punch “a social lubrication.”
“For special events at the restaurant, or if you’re hosting something at your house, I love the idea of punch bowls, because it’s the water cooler of the party,” Bearden said. “It’s such a great way to break the ice, and it’s interactive: You go back to fill up your cup, or someone else’s. It’s very social and can get a dialogue going.”
Bearden said that on a busy Saturday night, Workshop might make six to 10 punch bowls, at least. The 5-year-old Uptown Design District staple offers one punch on the menu—the venerable Pisco Punch, Workshop’s take on the classic concoction containing Peruvian brandy, the house-made pineapple shrub, lemon juice, clove and sparkling wine—but will spin any drinks on the cocktail list into a bowl on request. The Pisco Punch at Workshop is perfectly balanced, refreshing, easy to drink and delicious.
Punch bowls are usually kept on the lighter side, as far as the alcohol by volume is concerned.
“They’re meant to be made so you can have two or three or four, and not get knocked on your ass,” Bearden said. “I love that about them.”
Bearden said she’s made punch bowls for groups in size from four up to 80 (!), and large groups can pre-order a punch bowl so the first round is ready the moment the party walks in the door.
“You walk up to your table, and there’s the vintage punch bowl all set with these cute little vintage tea cups. That just puts a good taste in everyone’s mouth,” Bearden said. “It’s exciting and takes the experience to the next level.”
Punch’s roots run deep, perhaps as early as 17th-century India. Punch has five important elements, which are basically the building blocks of the modern craft cocktail: liquor, sugar, citrus, tea (or spice) and water. It’s believed “punch” may have been derived from the Farsi and Hindi word for “five,” which is pronounced “panch.”
English sailors brought the concept of punch and its necessary spices home with them, and by the end of the 17th century, a bowl of punch was all the rage throughout England and its colonies. Back then, punch was usually served hot, but it was sometimes made with ice or cool water for the upper class.
James Ashley, known as the world’s first celebrity bartender, had a famous tavern—The Sign of the Two Punch Bowls, where punch was the obvious staple—on Ludgate Hill in London from 1731 until his death in 1776. Punch has always been community-oriented, and has crossed class boundaries from lowly sailors to British Lords. It’s odd but true: In the 18th century, men used to carry little silver nutmeg graters around with them for their punch.
A punch and its five elements can easily be thought of as the cornerstone of tiki cocktails as well, and any tiki bar worth its salt should offer punch bowls. The two main tiki bars in town—Bootlegger Tiki and Tonga Hut—fill the bill.
Bootlegger’s signature punch for the summer is called Knee Deep, named after the classic George Clinton song. It includes Cuban-style rum, Blanc Rhum, aquavit, pear brandy, pineapple, lime, pineapple gomme, blue curaçao and soda. Like all the drinks on the list at Bootlegger, the Knee Deep is perfectly balanced and rich with flavor.
“I think it’s important to remember the idea behind punch is to have something light that can be enjoyed for an hour to a whole afternoon, depending on the event,” said Chad Austin, beverage director at the 3-year old Bootlegger, located in the Uptown Design District and attached to Ernest Coffee. “You aren’t trying to get everyone tanked, just loosened up after a few cups.”
Tonga Hut, in the heart of downtown Palm Springs, lists two punch bowls on its menu: the classic Scorpion Bowl and the Tonga Hut Treasure—but offers any of its drinks as a bowl for two or more people. The Tonga Hut Treasure is an original recipe containing rum, orange liqueur, cream, honey, orgeat and grapefruit. The Scorpion Bowl has rum, brandy and almond. The punches are served in classic volcano bowls—lit on fire and sprinkled with cinnamon and nutmeg, tableside, for a spark.
Legend has it the Scorpion Bowl was born in the 1930s at a bar in Honolulu called The Hut as a single-serve concoction, but came to prominence when “Trader Vic” Bergeron scooped up the recipe roughly a dozen years later. He then tweaked it, multiplied it and served it up at his famous Oakland bar.
No matter the setting, from fine dining to tiki to a pool party, a bowl of punch is a great kickoff.
“It gets the energy going,” Bearden said. “No one is looking at each other and asking, ‘Are you going to have a drink, or are you going to have an ice tea?’ It sets the stage and gets things moving in the right direction.”
Patrick Johnson is a journalist and head bartender at Truss and Twine. He can be emailed at email@example.com.