The first in an occasional series where we ask local bartenders, mixologists and other libation lovers to show us how to rustle up some specialty drinks. As I can’t fit you all in my kitchen, I’ll bring my kitchen to you.
In just a few weeks, many of us will be joining family and friends for a relaxing, low-key little gathering known as Thanksgiving. Perhaps you’ve been asked to contribute something, and you’re racking your brain for what to do. How about punch?
Ok, not that kind of punch – I’m not advocating holiday violence! Though I know many of us feel like pulling a punch over the holidays, let’s get happy instead. Punch by its communal nature is festive, like an alcoholic water-cooler bringing everyone together as you dip and pour. To help get us in the holiday mood, Dave McCabe tested out my kitchen one afternoon with a winter rum punch. He brought the punch ingredients, we provided the cheese, everyone got happy.
Formerly a manager at Oyamel, Dave is now co-owner of Punk’s Backyard Grill in Annapolis. He explained that the restaurant is dedicated to serving healthy food at reasonable prices, and as a member of the Maryland Green Registry is an avid believer in sustainability. Dave himself is clearly a passionate proponent of honest and simple ingredients, both in food and in cocktails. This punch recipe is both easy and approachable.
But wait, let’s kick up the classic champagne cocktail first. You’re going to need it while you squeeze all those grapefruits and lemons.
The champagne cocktail is one of the easiest and most elegant of drinks. All you need to do is drop a sugar cube in a flute (Dave used a raw sugar cube, which gives a lovely color, but you can use refined too), drizzle your favorite bitters over it (Angostura is the classic) and top it off with champagne. Presto! Instantly pretty. Dave showed us how to kick it up by adding a few freshly knocked-out pomegranate seeds, which float to the top of the bubbles and look beautiful for fall.
Now, while your guests are sipping away, you can get to the punch. Very simply, there are three elements in relatively equal parts – liquor, fruit juice, and spice syrup. I’m not going to give you precise measurements, because there are so many variables here – how many people, how big’s your punch bowl, how much alcohol is appropriate for your guests, etc. – so we’ll be old-fashioned and talk about parts relative to each other (which frankly is the way I cook anyway… eye it, smell it, taste it… toss the measuring cups, people! Be free!).
We started off learning how to make the spice syrup.
Ah, simple syrup. Everyone is making their own these days and adding whatever fantastically fun infusion they want. Simple syrup is just equal parts water and sugar combined to make a syrup – from there, your imagination is the limit. You can make ginger simple syrup, mint simple syrup, basil simple syrup, vanilla – get it? Yum.
To make the spice syrup, Dave first took cinnamon and nutmeg spices and dry toasted them in a pot over a low-to-medium flame, tossing them frequently so they wouldn’t burn. You’ll know the instant they’re ready because everyone will turn to the pot at once with an “OOOooo” sound as the spice releases a divine nutty scent to the air. Add your simple syrup, whisk well, reduce heat and simmer until nicely combined. You could then strain it or leave it as is, depending on your taste. Dave strained his.
In addition to the spice syrup, you’ll need freshly squeezed grapefruit and lemon juices. Grapefruit adds a lovely fall color and a nice bit of acidity, it’s a good seasonal fruit to use as well. You’ll want about three parts grapefruit juice to one part lemon juice.
For the liquor, Dave used Rogue White Rum, artisanal small-batch spirits from Oregon, made by a company more commonly known for its beers. Why white instead of dark? Because you want the color of the grapefruit to come through, and using a dark rum would look, well, muddy. Rogue uses Hawaiian cane sugar and champagne yeast to make its white rum. Though the white rum is the main liquor used, Dave also added a smaller amount of brandy to keep things interesting – so as with the juices, use three parts rum to one part brandy.
Combine the liquor, fruit juice and spice syrup into your punch bowl, taste and modify to your liking. Toss in a whole cinnamon stick or two, maybe float a few slices of grapefruit on top, and there you have it! Well, wait, you need to serve it up in style. So using a cut lemon, wet the glass rims and then twist them in a mixture of cinnamon and sugar for a very festive touch. Pour and enjoy.
The cinnamon sugared rim not only looks pretty, it’s the first thing you notice – the scent is a delicate hit. Then you’ll taste the grapefruit dancing with the spice syrup, the complex buttery-peppery rum, and a little bang of brandy at the end (or a lot, if your crazy Aunt Lucy drove you so mad you poured the whole bottle in).
Pass the glasses around and get to work on your turkey. You’ve saved the holidays.
Many thanks to Dave McCabe of Punk’s Backyard Grill for kicking off this series with the punch tutorial! Have an idea for a future Drinks Special? Let me know.