Although the mention of punch often conjures visions of cheap handles of booze mixed with red 40-dyed Kool-Aid, it actually has a storied past that goes back centuries. In 2010, cocktail historian David Wondrich published “Punch: The Delights and Dangers of the Flowing Bowl.” Thanks in good part to this seminal text, mixologists across America are now making the beverage in lovely antique punch bowls rather than five-gallon coolers at frat parties.
Chicago is very much a part of the national punch-drinking revival, and perhaps there’s nowhere the drink is more celebrated than at Punch House or Punch Bowl Social, where drinkers can buy it by the glass, carafe, or by the bowl.
Visitors to Punch House, located in Thalia Hall in Pilsen, find themselves surrounded by 1970s-inspired decor, complete with an aquarium and giant trophy fish on the wall. Whatever you do, don’t let the Life Aquatic environs fool you: There’s some damn good punch being served within these wood-paneled walls.
A traditional punch usually has only five ingredients—alcohol, sugar, lemon, water, and tea or spices—and it is best served communally. Worth noting is that while a proper punch is certainly boozy, it shouldn’t necessarily pack a punch. Due to its alcohol being diluted with water, tea, and lemon oil (as well as juices in modern variations), the drink is meant to be served in small punch glasses and savored with friends over the course of an afternoon or evening.
Punch House’s classic Garrick Club Punch, a recipe from the mid-1800s, has just the right combination of sparkling water, Luxardo maraschino, lemon, sugar, and Old Tom Gin, a style of gin that was popular during the pre-Prohibition era. Also worth trying is one of the bar’s punches with a modern twist, Chile, With Love, which is a delightful amalgamation of pomegranate, linden flower, lime, sparkling wine, and Control C—a thrice-distilled pisco made in Chile’s Limarí Valley. A bowl of either will set you back $66.
There are countless variations of punch, and those unfamiliar with the stuff might be surprised by clarified milk punch, which is a silky, often crystal clear drink that involves, of all things, straining curdled milk. Punch House’s ice-cold version, for example, adds a touch of nutmeg.
Meanwhile, Punch Bowl Social’s It’s a Mer-Man’s World punch is nothing short of perfect, mixing Old Forester bourbon, Teakoe’s pineapple and papaya tea, Bacardi eight-year-aged rum, lime, and cardamom syrup for $72 (serving eight). The “Social” adds innovative ingredients to many of its punches and cocktails, including fennel seed and watermelon shrubs. Punch Bowl Social has locations across the country, including one in the suburb Schaumburg, and later this year it’s opening one in Chicago proper.
Bars with “punch” in the name aren’t the only establishments in Chicago that are serving punch. The Violet Hour, a bar in Wicker Park that serves artisanal cocktails, has a gorgeous marble bar, crystal chandeliers, and candlelit tables. The bar has a long list of rules, including no cell phones, Grey Goose, Cosmos, or baseball hats, and asks that visitors not bring anyone who they wouldn’t bring to their mother’s house. Classy pretentiousness aside, there’s often a line to get into The Violet Hour, and the establishment’s signature punch ($55.00 for a bowl), with various labels of rum, cognac, dry Curaçao, lemon, and orange Oleo-saccharum—an ingredient often used in 19th century cocktails—can’t be beat.
For a punch that’s a little less traditional, head to Three Dots and a Dash, just below River North. This tropical tiki lounge offers an array of rums, distilled spirits, and house-made allspice, cinnamon syrups, and falernum, and serves up a strange and wonderful assortment of punch-like drinks. The Chief Lapu Lapu for Two ($28.00) blends Aged Demerara Rum, dark Jamaican rum, passion fruit, lime, and tangerine. Feeling fancy? For $385 you can get Treasure Chest, a bold combination of Dom Perignon, rare rums, and fresh fruit for six to eight people.
Chicagoans wanting to get right shnockered can probably still find cheap punch at a host of slightly seedier joints, but it’s worth spending a long evening sipping on the stuff with style. In addition to the establishments mentioned above, honorable mentions go to Apogee Lounge and The Loyalist, each of which serves a number of punches or punch-inspired communal drinks.
Header image courtesy of Punch House.