The crowd-pleasing power of punch

Not just for parties anymore; restaurants get in on the fun


H. Harper Station

904 Memorial Dr. S.E., Atlanta, 678-732-0415. www.hharperstation.com.

Also serving punch:

The Optimist

At the Oyster Bar at the Optimist, punch is served by the mug ($9) or the pitcher ($36). Always available is the Fish House Punch, which comes from a classic Colonial recipe featuring Gosling's Black rum, Hennessy V.S. cognac, black tea, sugar, lemon and Leopold Brothers' peach whiskey. There are at least two other punch recipes offered every day. "During the holidays, we have a crock pot on the side and we try to do one spiced hot punch every day," says beverage director Eduardo Guzman. "When you walk in, you get that aroma, and it smells like the holidays."914 Howell Mill Road N.E., Atlanta, 404-477-6260. theoptimistrestaurant.com.

Lure

Available primarily at brunch, Lure's punch bowls serve two-to-four ($25) or five-to-eight people ($50). Garden Party, is made with vodka, strega, cucumber syrup and soda. Ciao Pesca is peach schnapps, peach puree, ruby port and prosecco. "Punch bowls enhance the convivial, familial feeling that you get when you sit down at a table with a bunch of people," says Vajra Stratigos, beverage director for Fifth Group Restaurants. "It's creates an experience that says, let's all do this together. That's what it is for me." 1106 Crescent Ave. N.E., Atlanta, 404-817-3650. lure-atlanta.com.

H. Harper Station punch recipes

Cadet Punch

For the oleo-saccharum

4 lemons

8 ounces sugar

Peel lemons with a vegetable peeler, avoiding the white pith. Toss the lemon peel and sugar together in a bowl. Pour lemon peel and sugar mixture into a vacuum seal bag and seal according to the manufacture’s instructions. Let lemon peel and sugar break down in the bag for 4 to 6 hours. Stir again before using. Alternately, the mix can be muddled and then allowed to rest for an hour until the sugar melts.

For the punch

Oleo-saccharum (see recipe)

1 750 ml bottle rye whiskey

12 hard shakes Angostura bitters

750 ml ice cold water, you can use empty rye bottle for measuring

Sliced lemon wheels for garnish

Large block ice

You can make a large block of ice using a plastic quart container or bundt cake mold, or any shape you want, really. Ice can be removed by dipping container in hot water.

In a large punch bowl, add oleo-saccharum, including peel. Add rye and stir until any un-melted sugar dissolves. Add bitters and stir. Add cold water and stir. Add large block of ice and stir to cool. Garnish with lemon wheels. Ladle into cups and enjoy.

AWP 290 Punch

15 ounces bourbon

9 ounces aged rum

6 ounces peach puree

3 ounces lemon juice

3 ounces simple syrup

12 ounces ginger beer

12 ounces soda (seltzer) water

Large block of ice

Fresh mint for garnish

In a large punch bowl, add bourbon, rum, peach puree, lemon juice, simple syrup, ginger beer and soda and stir until well until combined. Add a large block of ice and garnish with fresh mint. Serve immediately.

Jerry Slater is behind the bar at his Reynoldstown restaurant, H. Harper Station, wearing a jaunty vest and bow tie combo that appears fittingly festive amid glowing holiday decorations.

He’s putting some heft into grinding lemon peels and sugar with a sturdy wooden muddler to create oleo-saccharum, an ambrosial essence that is the first pillar of punch making. Now he’s having fun marrying the fragrant oil-sugar with rye whiskey, Angostura bitters and ice, stirring up a concoction he calls Cadet Punch in an elegant silver bowl that looks like an antique trophy.

“The aroma is really nice,” Slater says, smiling and sipping a sample. “It tastes pretty good, too. The oleo-saccharum develops such a wonderful depth of flavor, you don’t need much more than that.”

Soon, he gracefully dips a silver ladle into the punch and delivers matching silver cups down the bar to a well-dressed couple, who return the gesture with a gushing toast. Later, when Slater makes a show of carrying the bowl to a table of coworkers having a girls night out, the scene changes, again. Instinctively, the group breaks into a toast, as laughter and rounds of ladling follow.

Call it the power of punch. The "original monarch of mixed drinks" is what cocktail historian David Wondrich called it in his influential 2010 book, "Punch" (Perigee, $23.95). And it's been making a comeback in bars and restaurants, following in the wake of the classic cocktail revival.

In fact, as Wondrich argues and Slater agrees, the punch bowl — the party prototype of “how to win friends and intoxicate people” — is the precursor to the classic cocktail.

Slater, who has some of the shy, friendly air of the child actor, Jackie Cooper, is a whiskey expert and well-known mixologist, with a degree in literature, a love of Faulkner and a background as director of restaurants at the upscale Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, Ky.

When he opened H. Harper Station in 2011 in the old Atlanta & West Point Railroad Freight Depot on Memorial Drive, punch wasn’t really happening in Atlanta, yet. But the inviting vintage space with its flickering gas lights seemed to cry out for sharing spirits from the past.

“I think we were the first to do it here in Atlanta,” Slater says. “It really is about conviviality, sharing a bowl of something with folks. And they really get into it. You see people deciding who gets the ladle and it’s really fun to watch. That’s the idea behind it.”

Currently, H. Harper Station has three different punch recipes, served in a variety of bowls with matching cups collected from antique shops by Slater’s mother. Priced at $40, each bowl serves four-to-six people.

“Our punches are basically the price of four cocktails, even though you’re getting enough for about six people to share, so it’s a good value,” Slater says.

Many of Slater’s punches are inspired by history and cocktail lore. “A lot of it has come from Wondrich’s books, to be honest,” he says.

Cadet Punch is a simplified version of Chatham Artillery Punch, a powerful concoction that dates back to the 1850s, when one Georgia regiment welcomed another home to Savannah with a bang. Said to have been “stirred into delirious deliciousness” in a horse bucket filled with crushed ice, it contained brandy, rum, whiskey, lemon and sugar, topped off with champagne.

“I wanted to make something for punch beginners, or cadets,” Slater says. “To me, it’s almost like a really good old fashioned. And it changes as the ice begins to melt. It gets different and lighter.”

AWP 290 Punch is named for the Atlanta and West Point Railroad locomotive No. 290 that once ran on the tracks outside H. Harper Station. The approachable bestseller is mixed with bourbon, rum, peach puree, mint, sugar and lemon, spiked with housemade ginger beer.

Over the holidays, Slater is perching his big silver punch bowl on the bar and offering $5 punch by the glass. Variations may include a hot rum punch for Christmas and a champagne punch for New Year’s Eve.

“Historically, the punch bowl is about celebration and being with friends and family,” Slater says. “So that really fits with the holiday spirit.”