Before the water cooler, there was the punch bowl. The bowl contained the original social medium—a beverage spiked with alcohol—and it brought people together. Groups of people congregated around the bowl, catching up on gossip, making merry, and enjoying one another’s company.
Sumerian art from as early as the 3rd century BC reveals that it’s been around for thousands of years, depicting ancient Mesopotamians drinking beer from a shared bowl with straws. The contents of the bowl have changed over the years as breakthroughs in alchemy in the 15th century brought a swift “punch” to the beverage, and the subsequent Western colonial period in the 16th and 17th centuries saw a massive proliferation of both distilled spirits and sugarcane, which ultimately gave birth to the era of the personal cocktail. In the ensuing centuries, drinkers could then hunch over their single-dram drinks instead of rubbing elbows with their neighbors; the communal bowl and the age of a the shared beverage experience was in decline.
Thanks to the bookish bartender of the 21st century, the historical cocktails from the communal bowl are making a comeback and being reinvented to boot. There is no better time to have this discussion than when the communal beverage is most relevant—during the holidays. Germans congregate over gluhwein, Americans over eggnog, Brits over wassails, the French over vin chaud, Norseman over glogg, and so on. Most cultures recognize that the nature of a communal beverage shares the spirit of the Holy Days of Winter: bringing people together to share in each other’s lives. Modern bartenders, being both academic and economical, realize that making these communal punches is not only a precedented social service, but it is also a great way to make a large quantity of drinks for many people to enjoy at once. The communal bowl is the perfect way to throw a party and encourage your guests to be social.
I checked in with some local drink craftsmen to see what is filling their bowls this time of year.
Cocktail enthusiast and protégé of drinkmaster Nick Crutchfield from Commonwealth Restaurant
“Punch is one of my favorite things to make and drink,” Hudgens said. “It’s easy and communal and festive and just makes me want to celebrate. I guess a punch for me is the sound of a champagne cork popping for a lot of people. It makes everything merry and bright.”
Tyler’s winter warmer punch
Combine equal parts: Sherry (try Lustau Manzanilla cream sherry), Appleton 12 Year, Peaty scotch (like Laphroig, Ardbeg, or Pig’s Nose), honey or honey liqueur, water (“Trust me, this is boozy,” Hudgens said. “And we aren’t stirring ice into it for dilution like we do for your Manhattans and such.”)
Turn on the crock pot and warm your mixture on low-medium heat. Ladle into a punch glass (if you don’t have one don’t fret; a rocks glass or snifter work just as nicely) and garnish with an orange peel studded with cloves. Just poke three or four cloves right into the skin of the orange in a fun pattern.
Bar manager at Blue Light Grill
Johnson has been riffing on gluhwein, the German-style mulled wine that is enjoyed communally in open-air markets throughout the holidays in many parts of Europe. Gluhwein is the perfect low-alcohol, warm beverage to sip as the cold of winter sets in.
“The punch is well-rounded with citrus notes, and the earthy tea-like nature and sweetness are subtle and do not overwhelm the palate,” Johnson said.
Dillard’s gluhwein weiss
1 1/2 bottles of Barboursville Riesling, 1 cup sugar, 1 cup honey, 1/2 cup lemon juice, 1 1/2 cups water, 4″ sprig rosemary, 2″ cinnamon stick, 1/2 tsp. clove, 1/4 tsp. cardamom
Coarsely grind the cardamom and clove, and combine all ingredients in a non-reactive pot. Bring to a gentle simmer and cover for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and strain. Garnish with rosemary sprig and lemon wheel. Serves five to six.
As the holidays approach, don’t forget the rich history of humans taking a moment to share both a beverage and their company. If making a batch is too much work, belly up to a bar in town. The bartenders will be happy to see you and share a pour from their bowl with you.
“Punch is one of my favorite things to make and drink,” said Tyler Hudgens. “It’s easy and communal and festive and just makes me want to celebrate.”