Punch is the host's best friend. Easily made ahead of time, you can have everything in place when your guests arrive, allowing you to relax and enjoy the party. It also enables you to immediately serve your friends a refreshing, delicious beverage without having to ask what they want and try to mix it up on the spot.
While you can make punch out of any liquor, the most successful ones tend to call for the old-fashioned, pot-distilled variety: cognac; the funky, rich rums for which Jamaica used to be famous; single malt Scotch; things of that ilk. No matter where the alcohol is from, though, it should be full-flavored and high-proof, as it will have to stand up to a lot of dilution.
The sour element is the essence of punch. So, add lemon or lime juice, as fresh as you can squeeze it, to the tune of one cup for every quart of spirits. But one of the few true secrets of punch-making is to incorporate the oil in lemon peels (lime peels are usually too bitter), which contributes a great depth of flavor. The easiest way to do this is to muddle the peels of four lemons (use a vegetable peeler to remove them from the fruit) with each cup of sugar you use and let it sit for three or four hours: This will wick out the sweet oil.
Use enough. Punch is not a cocktail; you’re meant to have multiple small cups as you chat with your friends, which means it should be about the strength of sherry. I like to start with the same quantity of water as spirits, plus an additional 25 percent—so 40 ounces of water for every quart of booze. Oh, and there’s ice, too: a quart-sized block (freeze a bowl or other container of water overnight) will keep that much punch cool without melting too quickly.
Don’t overdo it; you want people to taste the punch, not the spice. I enjoy a simple grating of fresh nutmeg over the bowl (about a third of a nutmeg seed should do). Others like to play with cordials, bitters and infusions, which are fine if used sparingly.
Wondrich also includes a recipe for a classic rum-brandy punch that sounds delicious.
I've yet to try making punch on a large scale, but I want to. If you have any favorite punch recipes, please share them in the comments section.