Until recently, my first thought upon hearing the word "punch" was a frat party, something electric red, and indiscriminate drinking--a concoction spiked with a slew of spirits that might be laying around and then covered in Koolaid. That seems to be the reputation punch has gotten—but if cocktail writer Dave Wondrich has anything to say about it, we are all missing the point. Punch is not the currency of undistinguishing party animals or boozy housewives at weekday luncheons—it is a fine art woven into the fabric of American Drinking and integral to cocktail history.
Perhaps the Philadelphia Fish House Punch can demonstrate this; the recipe is from the 18th century, and when I served it recently at a party—granted, a Toga Party, but why not do things with a sense of irony?—it was well received. I had to scramble and make a second bowl of it and promise the recipe to everyone.
Punch is a communal drink, obviously, and it's meant to be both stiff and down-easy, which together are particularly effective in kickstarting a party. Chicago's own Violet Hour has punch on their menu, and they bring to punch the same style and gravitas that accompany all of their cocktails, delivered to the table in an ornate bowl with a veritable iceberg floating in the middle (the single large surface area slows dilution). After experiencing the particular pleasure of is essentially a communal cocktail, I finally understood the appeal of punch.
Philadelphia Fish House Punch is based around rum, and is really about squeezing a heck of a lot of fresh lemon juice and finding one difficult ingredient, peach-flavored brandy. You used to be able to find peach brandy made with real fruit (and there is rumor of some distillers bringing it back), but for now I skated by with a pretty cheap bottle that probably uses artificial peach flavor. However, it seemed to perform quite well without detriment. Even better: a $10 bottle of dark rum and cognac are perfectly fine for a drink like this, so the whole lot can be made for very little cash.
The basic procedure for many punches is to muddle sugar with fresh citrus until as much of it is dissolved as possible. You can also muddle the zest of the lemons to release the citrus oil which adds even more lemony aromatics. Only then is the booze added until a good balance is reached, followed by plenty of water to dillute the bowl to palatable levels (substituting ice for some of the water, with an eye towards how quickly it will melt and add more water).
In a punch bowl, combine sugar, lemon juice, some zest from the lemons if desired, and a little water. Muddle and stir until the sugar has begun to dissolve.
Add all three types of alcohol and stir to completely dissolve remaining sugar. Taste, adjusting ratios as needed (a little peach brandy goes a long way). Top off with water and/or ice to taste and serve.