How To Master Party Punch without a Recipe
Homemade punch is the best party trick. Once you know the five must-have elements—you can easily put your own spin on every party punch you make.
Homemade punch is the best party trick. When you set out a bowl of self-serve booze, you free yourself up from mixing cocktails or uncorking wine while ensuring your guests’ glasses are never empty for long. But punch isn’t just an exercise in hosting efficiency. No, it’s a chance to flex your cooking muscles, only this time at the bar.
American partiers have been making punch since before the revolution. Though generations of drinkers have expanded the range beyond your wildest dreams, in the process a basic formula emerged. Once you know the five must-have elements—strong, sweet, sour, bitter, and water—and their approximate ratios—6 to 3 to 2 to 1 to 0.1—you can easily put your own spin on every party punch you make.
Originally, barkeeps based their punches on wine, which meant that they didn’t yield terribly strong drinks. These days, though, we’re serving boozier stuff. Rum, whiskey, vodka, and gin are all excellent bases, depending on your preferences, the season, and the type of party. Rum will fuel a late-night affair and pairs with other strong or tropical flavors like ginger and pineapple. Whisky is what you want for winter; diffuse its intensity with apple cider. Gin is nice with flowery flavors, herbal additions, and your latest homemade shrub. And vodka, well, it’s good with anything but leans especially towards citrus notes.
Start your punch with 6 cups of the chosen alcohol: you might want to add up to an additional cup to get the booziness level you desire.
Balance out the booze with the ultimate foil: something sour. In most punches, that’s lemon or lime juice. Squeezing enough citrus fruit is probably the most time-consuming part of the mixing process, but the taste is so much better when the juice is fresh, so allow time and energy for that. You can also experiment with drinking vinegars for the sour notes.
For 6 cups of alcohol, you’ll want 2 to 3 cups of lemon or lime juice.
Early punches were quite sweet, by our tastes, but these days we’ve reduced the cloying sugar side of punches by cutting down on the syrup we add. There are so many delicious ways to add a sweet side, starting with plain simple syrup (equal weights of sugar and water heated until the sugar dissolves completely). You can flavor that syrup with notes that’ll match your other ingredients, like fresh herbs, whole spices, tea, ginger, whole fruit, citrus peel, honey, maple syrup, coffee beans: almost anything! You can replace some of the syrup with one traditional ingredient that’s not seen as often these days: scoops of sherbet.
For 6 cups of alcohol and 2 to 3 cups of something sour, you’ll want around 2 cups of something sweet.
Tea, Water, Soda or Lower-Proof Booze
Here’s where modern punch recipes tend to depart from their heritage. In the past, the largest portion of any ingredient was actually water! Now, we’re much more likely to add soda, tea, or even a lower proof alcohol as our second liquid. If you use soda, cut down on the sweetener, and be sure to pour in right before serving to preserve the carbonation. For alcohol, you might use wine, champagne (minding the carbonation note), or an aperitif like orangey Aperol, amaretto, or sweet vermouth. Finally, brewed iced tea can be a nice way to round out flavors without introducing more booze.
For 6 cups of alcohol, 3 cups of sour, and 2 cups of sweet, you’ll want anywhere from 1 cup of your dilution liquid if it’s strong all the way up to 2 liters if you’re using seltzer or soda. Taste as you go and see what you like best.
Herbal liquors known as bitters finish almost any drink by rounding out the flavors, balancing the booze, the sugar, and the sour notes. In punch, since you’re dealing with such large quantities, think in terms of tablespoons of bitters, rather than drops.
For 6 cups of alcohol, 3 cups of sour, and 2 cups of sweet, and a variable amount of your second liquid, add 2 tablespoons of bitters.
Since punch will be sitting out, you’ll want to cool it with the largest piece of ice you can find. The big size means the ice will melt more slowly. A loaf or bundt pan comes in handy for making giant ice loaves or rings. Check out Bon Appetit’s beautiful suggestions for fruit-filled ice rings to garnish your punch.
To serve your punch, find your biggest bowl or pick up a glass, crystal, or plastic punch bowl. A matching ladle is nice or grab the one you usually use for serving soup.
To get you started, here are foolproof recipes for your next party punch, some of which vary a bit from the standard proportions. Try them as written, or tweak them to your tastes! (Note that the 6 cups of booze is the same as two 750 ml bottles.)
Planter’s Punch = 6 cups dark rum + 2 cups freshly squeezed lime juice + 2 cups simple syrup + 4 cups water + 2 tablespoons bitters. Garnish: maraschino cherries.
Bourbon Punch = 6 cups bourbon + 2 cups freshly squeezed lemon juice + 1 ½ cups simple syrup flavored with 2 tea bags + 1 cup brandy + 2 tablespoons Regan’s orange bitters. Garnish: sliced oranges.
Three-Citrus Vodka Punch = 6 cups vodka (half plain, half orange) + 4 cups mixed freshly squeezed citrus juice (lemon, orange, and grapefruit) + 2 ½ cups simple syrup flavored with mint + 4 cups seltzer + 4 cups champagne + 2 tablespoons Regan’s orange bitters. Garnish: mint leaves.
Gin & Ginger Punch = 6 cups gin + 2 cups fresh lime juice + 1 ½ cups simple syrup + 2 liters (8 cups) ginger ale + 2 tablespoons Angostura bitters. Garnish: lime slices.