Popular as a retro drink, crowd-pleasing punch makes a return

A combination of sugar and lemon rinds add flavor and sweetness to a punch called National Inclination, made by bartender Clark Ross at the Boiler Room.

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Omaha bartender Clark Ross scoured thrift stores all over the city and came back to his downtown bar at the Boiler Room restaurant with a stack of vintage glass punch bowls that likely hadn't been used in decades.

One is covered with apples and grapes. Another partially frosted bowl has the kitschy feel of the 1950s. A third includes a set of tiny cups with mod, pointy handles.

The bowls — and the boozy, old-school drink that fills them — have found a new audience on the Boiler Room's patio, where for $60 a group of four or more can languidly sip a house-made concoction out of a giant bowl kept cool with an equally giant sphere of ice while feeling appropriately retro.

“Punch is never going to be that serious,” Ross said. “It's meant to be a social and engaging drink.”

Though the drink itself may not be serious, its comeback is. The punch renaissance likely began in 2010, when James Beard award-winning cocktail historian David Wondrich released his book “Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl.”

At the Dead Rabbit, a New York craft cocktail bar, guests can order punch delivered in a vintage sterling silver punch bowl and drink it out of tiny sterling cups; it runs anywhere from $55 to $90, depending on how many people it serves. The Food Network's Alton Brown devoted an entire show to the science behind making the perfect punch.

Ross said he'd been contemplating a punch program for months, and the program officially launched this spring. At this point, punch is served just on the outdoor patio.

The punch Ross and other bartenders serve is not the same thing as the more modern “fishbowl,” an often sickly sweet drink made with a two-liter of soda and a bottom-shelf spirit. Instead, Ross bases his recipes on the styles of punch popular in the early 1900s. Each one he serves has a base of strong, double-strength brewed tea. Coffee or water also can be the base for his recipes.

One afternoon this week, he demonstrated the mixology behind a bowl of Natural Inclination, the most classic of all the punches on his menu.

First he measures fresh lemon juice and rye, and pours both into the punch bowl, which he then sets aside.

He pours into a separate pitcher a bag full of a blend of sugar and citrus peels — in this case, lemon — that's known as oleo saccharum and is the traditional sweetener for punches.

The oleo saccharum has to be made at least a day in advance, so the ingredients have time to mingle. The sugar sucks the oils from the fruit and makes a sort of sugar-fruit juice blend that adds flavor and sweetness to the punch.

Ross mixes double-strength brewed tea — this one a rooibos, a South African red tea with a mild flavor — with the sugar-citrus blend, and the heat of the tea dissolves the sugar.

“Using tea gives you a lot of flavor options,” Ross said. “It lengthens the punch and makes it more flavorful. And it also has the added benefit of caffeine, so it keeps you more alert while you're drinking.”

All the tea Ross uses comes from the locally owned Tea Smith shop in the Old Market.

The final step is blending the sweetened tea mixture in the pitcher with the spirits and citrus in the punch bowl. Ross holds the lemon peels back from the edge of the pitcher so they don't fall in the main bowl.

He finishes the punch with a huge, clear, cylindrical block of ice that floats in the center of the bowl and a transparent ladle with pour spouts on each side, then carries it outside to the patio and pours some.

The flavor of the punch is mild and smooth and goes down easily. The tea sits in the background, and blends with a hint of rye and a touch of lemon.

The Boiler Room is the only Omaha bar serving punch by the bowl so far, but Ross said he wouldn't be surprised if some of the city's other craft bars soon followed suit.

Binoy Fernandez, craft bartender at the Indian Oven in the Old Market, said he doesn't have plans to start a punch program, but he does serve many by-the-glass cocktails that fit the punch “formula.”

The Tom Collins is the first one that comes to his mind.

“It's basically gin and sparkling lemonade,” he said, “I'd even argue that if you are using true fresh cranberry juice, a Cape Cod follows the same punch rules.”

There's a rhyme to remember the ratio Fernandez refers to: “One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak.”

For a Tom Collins punch, mixologists would blend one part lemon juice, two parts simple syrup, three parts gin and four parts soda water.

Fernandez said the “weak” element can also just be ice instead of all liquid, as the ice will melt in the cocktail or punch bowl.

Other cocktails Fernandez serves at the Indian Oven that fit the formula are the French 75, a lemony champagne cocktail, and the Moscow Mule, a limey cocktail made with vodka and ginger beer.

Though he doesn't serve from punch bowls at his bar, Fernandez said he often makes bowls of punch at home for parties.

“The pressure is off the host, and it's an easy thing to do,” he said. “I have done several and they are delicious.”

So far, Ross said, people have been receptive to the punch bowl service. He served a variety of punches to a private party, and he's served quite a few on the patio during warmer weather.

If the popularity keeps growing, he may bring the program inside this fall and serve hot punches inside, perhaps even by the glass.

“Some people don't know what to think about punch,” Ross said. “But then they try it, and they see how awesome it is, and how fun it is, and they want to do it again.”

Boiler Room Bartender Clark Ross recommended the Food Network's Alton Brown as one resource for good, authentic punch recipes. Here are two, a whiskey and rum punch perfect for the end of summer and Brown's take on the classic hot toddy, which he mixes in a slow cooker and is perfect when fall kicks in.

Recipe: Alton Brown's Cape Fear Punch

For the base:

• 1 bottle (750 milliliters) rye whiskey

• 750 milliliters water

• ½ cup Demerara sugar

• 3 bags green tea

• 1 bottle (375 milliliters) rum

• 1 bottle (375 milliliters) cognac

• 4 whole lemons

For the punch:

• 2 small oranges, thinly sliced

• 4 small lemons, thinly sliced

• 2 (750-milliliter) bottles sparkling wine or Champagne

• 1 liter seltzer or sparkling water

• Ice block

• Freshly grated nutmeg

For the base: Pour the rye whiskey into a 4-quart container. Fill the now empty rye whiskey bottle with water, pour into an electric kettle, and bring to a boil. Add the sugar and stir until the temperature drops to 190 degrees F. Place the tea bags in the kettle and steep for 3 minutes.

Add the tea, rum and cognac to the whiskey. Peel the zest from the lemons, being careful to remove the white pith. Wrap the lemon bodies in plastic wrap and reserve in the refrigerator. Add the lemon zest to the mixture, and stir to combine. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Factbox text: For the punch: Strain the base into a large punch bowl. Juice the reserved lemon bodies and add to the punch bowl. When ready to serve, add the oranges, lemons, sparkling wine and seltzer water; stir to combine. Add the ice block and serve with freshly grated nutmeg.

Recipe: Hot Toddy

• 1 lemon, thinly sliced, plus more for garnish

• ½ cup Demerara sugar

• 1 quart water

• 2½ cups Scotch whiskey

• Freshly grated nutmeg

Combine the lemon, sugar and water in a small, 2- to 3-quart slow cooker set to high. Cover and heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar dissolves completely, 20 to 30 minutes. Add the Scotch whisky and stir to combine. Reduce the heat to low and serve warm with lemon slices and freshly grated nutmeg.

— Recipes courtesy of foodnetwork.com.

Correction: A previous version of this story listed an incorrect ingredient for a Moscow Mule.

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