Punch is supposed to be easy—just pop a couple of bottles, squeeze a couple lemons, add something sweet, and maybe finish it off with some bubbly. Although the punch mixing process seems simple, there are plenty of ways it can go awry. Mess up any one component, and you’re suddenly left with a very large, possibly very expensive bowl of schlock.
To ensure you never waste a whole lot of booze on bad punch again (or worse yet, serve bad punch to party guests), we contacted an expert to help solve our most basic punch problems. James Wampler, head mixologist of Proof & Provision in Atlanta, recently beat out contestants across the nation to win Cochon555’s fifth annual Punch Kings competition. As reigning champ, he has a few pro tips for the uneasy punch makers out there.
Achieve Balance with Classic Proportions
In Wampler’s opinion, the number one mistake people make when mixing punch is forgetting about balance. “Punches classically are going to be based on a sour (lemon or lime), sweetener and base [spirit],” he says. There are a few ratios floating around the punch world, but Wampler prefers the “classic proportions” of two-to-one-to-one (two parts base spirit, one part sour and one part sweet). He adds, “If you learn how to make a proper lemonade using just a sweetener, lemon juice and water, and you make that tasty, that will translate. Swap booze for the water. From there you can get creative with flavors.”
Test the Recipe on a Single Cocktail
Instead of emptying full bottles before testing your punch, Wampler suggests making a cocktail-sized version first to taste test. This way, you can adjust the flavor balance on a smaller scale before expanding the ratios to serve a crowd.
Don’t Drown It In Sugary Mixers
“People are often either afraid of sugar or go too far with sweeteners or fillers,” Wampler says. “You want a punch to have booze, you want it to have some kick, but you don’t want to taste it too much. So people just drown it in juices and Hi-C and Mountain Dew, college style, and make a sugar bomb.” Not only will these punches taste like the overpowering mixers, but they’ll leave drinkers with a nasty taste in their mouths—and possibly a nastier hangover. “Avoid sour mix,” he says. “Avoid high-fructose corn syrup. Avoid soft drinks. Quality is everything. Your friends will thank you the next morning for not using the crappy stuff.”
Don’t Mix Clashing Flavors
While classic ratios are meant to empower drinkers to make new, exciting punches that actually work, Wampler points out that “certain flavors aren’t going to work with certain spirits.” Bourbon, for example, may not work with floral mixers, and that expensive Cognac may not take kindly to a spicy pepper liqueur. Wampler prefers The Flavor Bible for guidance on what ingredients will work together, but any flavor pairing guide can help you.
Consider the Size of Your Ice
“The larger the pieces of ice, the less melt you’ll have,” Wampler explains. “Imagine crushed ice versus a chunk of ice in a glass of Coke. That crushed ice will melt pretty fast because of all of the exposed surface area.”
If you can, freeze a large block of ice in a bowl, baking pan or even plastic takeout container, and use that to chill the punch. You can then ladle the punch into cups filled with smaller ice cubes if the drink needs further dilution (if it’s especially strong, like a Long Island Iced Tea Punch, for example).
When You Add the Ice Is Important, Too
Ice is always on its way to becoming water, and the amount of water in a cocktail matters. “The proper amount of water is going to determine how good the drink is,” Wampler says. “If you ice it too early, you’ll get too much water. You ice it too late, it’ll be too rich.” While larger blocks of ice will melt more slowly (and can thus be added a little sooner and last a little longer), if you have decently large ice cubes (not crushed ice or poor quality crescent ice), you can safely add them about 20-40 minutes before serving to achieve the proper amount of dilution.
Wampler also suggests popping the punch in the fridge before adding ice to chill the ingredients. If you want to add one more calculation to your recipe, another option is to dilute the mixture with water (about half as much water as total citrus juice). Store the pre-mixed drink in the fridge, then ladle the punch into ice-filled glasses to serve.
Squeeze Citrus à la Minute
Fresh is always better, especially when it comes to volatile citrus. Wampler points out that it only take 10-20 minutes to squeeze all the citrus you might need for a standard punch, so it’s worth it to make time during day-of party prep. But if your primping and apartment-decorating schedule is too tight, that’s OK too. “You’ll get at least a day’s freshness out of anything you make as long as you refrigerate it, he says. “Don’t worry about it too much. Sometimes, out of necessity, you have to freeze something and that’s OK. But I would definitely go with fresh juice if possible.” If you have to compromise, make sure you compromise on timing, not on the quality of your citrus. Say no to sour mix, kids.
Take Your Punch to the Next Level with Oleo Saccharum
If your last lemony punch tasted a bit blah, consider making an oleo saccharum this time around. The old school technique (popular with 19th-century bartenders like Jerry Thomas) requires an extra day of prep to extract tons of flavor from lemon peels, but the added time investment pays off huge in flavor. According to Wampler, “It’s the one thing that will take something that’s pretty good and make it really good.”