The Secret (yet Easy) Ingredient in Classic Punch
When you say the word “punch” in reference to entertaining, for most people what come to mind are a fruity cocktail and a beverage served in a large bowl with a ladle. Both are characteristic of punch, but neither is the defining element. One of five ingredients (water, citrus, alcohol, and spice being the other four), the key component of a classic punch is oleo-saccharum, essentially a mix of sugar and citrus oil (the Latin word translates to “oily sugar”).
In his seminal book Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Holiday Bowl, cocktail historian and mixologist David Wondrich says that this fragrant mixture is what gives punch its “ambrosial essence.” It offers depth and an elegant, citrusy aroma and flavor. The ingredient is mentioned in practically every classic cocktail book you can find—it’s non-negotiable. Ask any mixologist you meet, and they’ll tell you punch is not punch without oleo-saccharum—and it certainly has nothing to do with Kool-Aid.
So how do you make it? Read on to learn all about this refreshing, aromatic base.
4-6 lemons or oranges, peeled—avoid the pith (it has a bitter flavor)
1 cup sugar
1 cup lemon juice
In a large bowl, muddle the peels with the sugar, and let them sit for an hour or more. You’ll see some moisture released as you muddle, and after sitting, the mixture should have developed a little puddle of citrus oils. Mix this with the lemon juice and then strain out the peels. From here, you can use the oleo saccharum as a base, adding water, alcohol, spice, and sugar to make punch.
As Wondrich writes in his book, "This process is admittedly time-consuming and to some degree a laborious one." Mixologist and cocktail expert Jeffrey Morganthaler has developed a work-around to speed up the process: vacuum sealing. If you're only making one bowl of punch, it's probably not worth it to go this route, but if you're making punch regularly or planning to make several at a time, it's a clever hack worth exploring.
Excerpted from Wondrich's book Punch:
1 pint fresh lemon juice
1 750 ml bottle VSOP cognac
1 750 ml bottle bourbon whiskey
1 750 ml Jamaican-style rum
To make an oleo-saccharum, peel the zest of 12 lemons, getting as little pith as possible. Firmly muddle the peels in a sturdy bowl with 2 cups of light raw sugar. Cover and leave the mixture to sit in a warm place for about an hour. Muddle the mixture again, and it’s ready to use. Mix oleo-saccharum with 1 pint of freshly squeezed lemon juice. Stir and strain into an empty 750 ml bottle. Add water to fill any remaining space in the bottle, seal, and refrigerate. To serve, fill a two-and-a-half gallon punch bowl with ice and pour in the bottled oleo-saccharum. Add the bottles of cognac, bourbon, and Jamaican-style rum. Top off with three bottles of chilled brut Champagne. Stir. Then smile.
Excerpted from Loving Cup:
1 cup Brandy
1 cup lillet rose
1/2 cup velvet falernum
1 1/2 teaspoons honey
Brandied cherries halved
Grilled pineapple cut into 1/2″ pieces
Heartsease pansies and leaves to decorate such as strawberry or mint
3/4 cup lemon peel oleo-saccharum
3/4 cup lemon juice
Lightly muddle pineapple with falernum, add remaining ingredients and stir; the ice once you place it in the glass will provide your water component. The punch mix should be stored in a fridge to get it cold before serving. To serve add add to a punch cup, pour over a small ladle of punch mix and decorate.
Excerpted from Saveur:
Shop some a few stylish punch bowls below!
Have you ever made oleo saccharum? Tell us in the comments.
Opening photo: Maxime Iattoni for Saveur