Matters of the spirit: The punch chronicles

Punch, which according to some is the progenitor of most modern drinks, is starting to make regular and interesting appearances on Indian bar menus. But we want more.  
Punch is said to have been invented in india by employees of the east india company. Image: shutterstock
Punch is said to have been invented in India by employees of the East India Company. Image: Shutterstock

David Wondrich pays tribute to Punch, the drink that he calls the “monarch of mixed drinks” in his book, Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl. Wondrich attributes the origins of Punch to the desperation of British sailors, whose beer spoiled when they sailed into tropical climes like India and Indonesia, and hence they concocted a drink that as the rhyme went, had “One of Sour, Two of Sweet, Three of Strong, Four of Weak.” The sour referring to lime, the sweet to a sweetener, the strong to an alcoholic base, most often rum, and the weak to water. Added to all of this was spices, that made it a total of five ingredients, or paanch as we say in Hindi, a word that as hoary legend goes, got anglicised to the English word Punch. 

And though crowned a monarch by David — or as Dimi Lezinska, former co-host of Discovery Channel’s hit show, Cocktail Kings, says, one of the foundations of mixed drinks — it’s a cocktail that hasn’t got the proper credence it deserves on drink menus across India. A few votaries across India, however, are making attempts to give the cocktail a contemporary twist, but there are a lot of opportunities that remain untapped. 

One of the earlier votaries of the Punch was Ek Bar (sadly, now closed), a bar set up by A.D. Singh in Delhi in 2015 that was a pioneer in many ways, and most uniquely in its focus on cocktails with a unique Indian lineage. Nitin Tewari aka Mr. Bartrender was then at the helm of the beverage programme. With its focus on Indian cocktails, as Nitin tells me, “Punch was a gimme drink for them to create and showcase”. 

While creating the recipe he also wanted to create a connect to tea, and thus as a part of his recipe he used masala tea, grapefruit syrup and citrus. The “strong” in this case was a spirit that surprised guests when they realised what was in their punch: whisky. As Nitin says, “it was a whisky cocktail for people who didn’t like the taste of whisky”! It was a citrusy, smoky drink and I remember it well from my few visits to Ek Bar. Nitin’s genius didn’t extend only to mixology but also to marketing, and he used the Royal Indian Punch as a taster cocktail, giving guests a small sample on the house. A step that led to it being the second-highest selling cocktail at Ek Bar, averaging 50-60 drinks a day. It’s serve was also unique as Nitin sourced antique teapots and cups from Old Delhi to give it a unique service ritual. 

Nitin tewari and ek bar's royal indian punch
Nitin Tewari and Ek Bar’s Royal Indian Punch

Ek Bar was a bar that truly helped evolve the Indian cocktail scene, with many bars trying (but unfortunately failing) to emulate them. As a cocktail bar, with a lounge-like feel, servers also had the opportunity to interact with guests, helping build the popularity of the Punch as also their top-selling cocktail, the City of Nizam. Nitin agrees that although it’s unlikely to see the Punch as a separate section altogether in the menu, most trending cocktail bars in India now have a Punch-style drink or their interpretation of it. To investigate this further, I carried on my conversation to Home, the high-end bar and restaurant at Director’s Cut at Ambience Mall in Delhi, where I’d drink a punch with a difference: a clarified milk punch.  

Santanu Chanda is the group beverage manager for Home. He was previously working at Dubai’s Buddha Bar and, while in Dubai, he’d been influenced by Nico de Soto, an influential French bartender, who’s known for amongst other things his clarified pandan milk punch, made famous at Danico in Paris and Mace in New York. 

The clarified milk punch at home, the high-end bar at pvr director's cut, delhi
The clarified milk punch at Home, the high-end bar at PVR Director’s Cut, Delhi

Santanu wanted to give the Punch a twist via ensuring a multi-sensory experience for guests, while also staying true to the roots of the drink. He eschewed tea from the recipe, replacing it with dried banana flowers that provided the bitter taste, while the spice came from a careful combination of mace, bay leaf, star anise, black cardamom and clove, subtle and not overpowering. The sweetness from a triple-citrus cordial (orange, grapefruit and lemon) and pineapple juice. The “strong” from Maker’s Mark bourbon, again a surprising element, especially for women, as they didn’t realise with the clear texture of the drink (see photo) that it has whisky as a base. The drink also contains double cream and full-fat milk, that is then triple filtered to make the drink super clear. It’s garnished with a sorrel leaf, from the garden on Home’s terrace, lending a minty flavour to the drink. Delhi’s response to the drink has greatly heartened Santanu, and he’s planning to launch four more punches now, two of them rum based and two whisky based, and all staying true to the original and to Nico, as clarified milk punches. 

A few months before Ek Bar opened, we also saw the launch of Bombay Canteen, another path-breaking restaurant, in Mumbai. Dimi helped curate the menu, and introduced a few Punches to the menu. He doesn’t recollect now how the drinks performed, but agrees that the Punch remains underserved as a drink on bar menus. “The first drink you have when you get to Brazil is a Caipirinha,” he says, “Why can’t a punch be the first drink that a tourist has when they come to India?” 

Dimi is convinced that the Punch can be packaged in an interesting manner to the emerging Indian cocktail consumer. A great environment for this could be a five-star hotel, he feels, given the resources that they can bring to bear as well as the environment they have to make it a stellar experience for their guest, citing the legendary Harbour Bar at Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Palace hotel as a perfect venue. There is a whole narrative when it comes to the Punch, that remains to be told in India. As India’s cocktail culture continues to be defined, with a set of super cocktail bars and bartenders, I’m sure that the Punch is no longer going to remain a name we read in vintage cocktail books, but one that springs to life from your menu. 

A punch for the holidays

“During the holiday season, consumers are experimental — they want to try beverages like eggnog, mulled wine and punches. Holiday punch is simple to make, complex in flavour and adds to the festive cheer. Similar to mulled wine, these punches are fruity and spicy. You can add cinnamon, star anise and other spices or mix it up with the fruit of the season. Punch is also enjoyed by all adult age categories. With the cocktail culture growing in India, we hope to see this become a new staple at bars and restaurants,” says Abhirup Bhattacharyya, Brand Ambassador, Stilldistilling Spirits.

Rum punch

The maka zai rum punch
The Maka Zai rum punch

The classic drink is one of the earliest known cocktails, with written references dating to at least the 17th century. Traditionally featuring a spirit, citrus, spice, sugar and water, punch offers the creative drinker a wide berth for experimentation. Here’s our Maka Zai version.

Ingredients 

  • 300 ml Maka Zai white rum
  • 300 ml Maka Zai gold rum
  • 600 ml Fresh pineapple juice
  • 300 ml Fresh orange juice
  • 120 ml Lime juice
  • 120 ml Black tea syrup
  • To garnish; orange wheels, pineapple slices and star anise

Method

  • Fill the punch bowl with ice.  
  • Add in 600 ml of pineapple juice and 300 ml of orange juice.  
  • Add in 300 ml of Maka Zai white rum and 300 ml of Maka Zai gold rum.  
  • Give it a stir and add in 120 ml of lime juice and 120 ml of black tea syrup (make 100 ml of black tea and dissolve 100 g of sugar in it to make the syrup).
  • Stir again till chilled and serve! Your rum punch serves 8-10 people!
Vikram achanta

Vikram Achanta is founder and CEO of Tulleeho, a drinks training and consulting firm, and a co-founder of www.tulleeho.com, a drinks website. He is also co-founder of 30 Best Bars India, India’s first bar awards and ranking platform. His Instagram handle is @rumdoodle69.

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