Bar Chef Brendan Dorr shows of one of his "punch for four"… (Doug Kapustin, Special…)
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.