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The Past, Present, and Future of Big-Ass Drinks

Large-format cocktails are making a comeback

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Photo: Museum of the City of New York/Byron Collection/Getty Images

The phrase “bigger is better” might prove true when it comes to mixed drinks: Large-format cocktails are enjoying a well-received resurgence in the craft cocktail scene. For those mixing cocktails at their home bars — especially for holiday and end-of-year gatherings — the joys of serving a punch bowl or a pitcher means only doing the work once, followed by the added fun of sharing the same experience with friends. But a deeper look into that pitcher will reveal an interesting history, as large-format mixed drinks find their timeline ladled from the punch bowl.

Punch’s story is covered in intricate detail by booze historian David Wondrich in his book, Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl. Like any batch of brown spirits mixed with ice and spice, its origins are murky — Wondrich’s research places punch’s beginnings in India during British colonization. “Punch was a colonialist expedient for what to do when you ran out of wine and beer — you had to improvise a palatable drink based on the rough spirits of the day,” he says. “It’s inseparable from the colonial experience.”

England’s East India Company was formed in 1600, bringing merchants eastward. The genius who first concocted punch is unknown, but its first written record comes from a letter dated to 1632, but without discussion of its name or recipe; in 1676, John Fryer, a young physician for the East India Company, wrote that the word “punch” derives from “Paunch (which is Indostan for Five) from Five Ingredients.” A basic punch usually includes five ingredients that were accessible during colonialism, including in Southeast Asia, where EIC sailors mixed their drinks: citrus for the bitter, sugar for sweet, alcohol for spirit, spice for flavor, and water for base. However, as charming as this tale is, Wondrich attests that it’s most likely a bit of modern mythology, as many historical recipes feature sometimes more and sometimes fewer than five ingredients.

As British colonization expanded, punch went along for the boat ride, making a pit stop in London then westward to the Caribbean. Johnny Swet — a New York City-based consulting mixologist for the Rickey at Dream Midtown — is known for his inventive large-format drinks, and he says sailors on ships to the Caribbean carried spirits aboard because beer and wine occupied more cargo. In order to avoid scurvy illness caused by Vitamin C deficiency, the ships also had plenty rations of lime juice — and those mixed mighty fine with the spirits.

Wondrich says records show punch mentioned in the West Indies by 1648, in the English and Dutch Americas by the 1660s, and in the Spanish Americas by the 1700s. (It was likely fueled further by the region’s rum production: As a byproduct of the sugar-making process, rum became a plentiful commodity in the sugar cane plantation region.) In 1763, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter describing milk punch, which added milk and replaced rum with brandy.

Photo: Dina Avila

Punch’s popularity died down at the turn of the 20th century, overtaken by single-serving cocktails. “Once ice, different glassware, more liquors became available, individualism became the trend and people started doing their own things and launching their own cocktails,” says Danilo Bozovic, Barkeep co-author, principal bartender of Macao Trading Co., and partner of the upcoming Employees Only Miami. “It’s an evolution of us as consumers and how our palate changes. After the punch craze, bartenders started to make singular drinks.”

Punch continued, but in a single-serving format, and its new renditions can often be found in a large glass designed for one person. “The big bowl of punch gets replaced with the Swizzle or the Planter’s Punch,” Wondrich says. “Those two get mashed up with the beginnings of Tropicalia or tiki culture, this interest in tropical drinks that happened during Prohibition. That evolves and takes this idea of a single glass of punch, and widens it out into a whole class of new drinks that are basically all punches in the glass.”

From the Western side of the United States came the tiki cocktail, another often-large drink that finds its origins in punch — as can be seen in their shared ingredients of rum, citrus, sugar, ice, and spices. “Punch is the direct ancestor of tiki drinks,” says tiki expert and author of Taboo Table Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. According to Berry, Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt — better known as Donn Beach — started the tiki craze in the 1930s, with the opening of his Hollywood restaurant Don the Beachcomber. Beaumont Gantt had traveled the South Pacific, and when he crossed back over the Pacific Ocean, he brought with him the aesthetics of the culture he had seen — but not necessarily the flavors. The word “tiki” refers to the carved wood totem often shaped into the glassware: What went into the tiki glass stemmed from punch, rather than any drink in the South Pacific.

“In his earlier travels to Jamaica, Donn Beach discovered Planter’s Punch, the island’s national drink, which is basically a single-serving version of the classic 17th-to-19th-century Caribbean punch bowl: rum, citrus, sugar, water, and ‘a pinch of spice to make it nice,’” Berry says. “Planter’s Punch became the foundation for over 60 of Beach’s original ‘tiki’ recipes, which hundreds of copycat bars cloned over the next 40 years during tiki’s 1930s-’70s golden age.’”

Out of this tiki trend sprung more cocktails, which came in various large-portioned variations — the Mai Tai, the Zombie, the Missionary’s Downfall. In terms of serving size, the most punch-like is the Scorpion Bowl, a batch of ingredients that is enjoyed by many with multiple straws rather than being ladled out to each individual. According to Berry, Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron — who opened his tiki bar in Oakland in the late 1930s, three years after Don the Beachcomber made its debut — invented the Scorpion Bowl sometime during WWII.

“Vic was Donn Beach’s most successful imitator, because he didn’t just copy Donn — he pushed Donn’s ideas further,” Berry says. “In the case of the Scorpion, he took Donn’s single-serving tiki punch concept back to its roots by serving a tiki drink in a communal bowl, as punch had traditionally been served for two centuries... And the bowl was no mere punch bowl, but a specialty ceramic vessel decorated with Polynesian imagery. Like Beach’s drinks, this concept was soon copied by hundreds of rival tiki bars and restaurants, and drinking out of tiki bowls became a core part of the tiki bar experience.”

These tiki drinks then began to take over all kinds of large receptacles, “in coconuts, pineapples, scorpion bowls, bunch of straws,” Swet says, especially as the tiki cocktail trend enjoyed a recent revival. “Now it has morphed into large-format cocktails for groups to enjoy. Sometimes it’s segued into pitchers. So it’s morphed from punch, to tiki, to large-format cocktails, to groups drinking one thing.”

Photo: Dina Avila

Punch has long held its place around holiday times or hot summers, when a bowl of ladled punch evokes a certain togetherness. But history is cyclical, and society is moving away from individualism and returning to a shared-model culture — shared transportation, shared living spaces, and over-sharing on Facebook. At the bar, this movement is found in a resurgence of large-format cocktails, enjoyed during all seasons. The trend started rising up in 2013. In 2014, along with tiki, its uptick was noted at the annual cocktail festival Tales of the Cocktail. Now in 2016, large format cocktails are in full swing.

In New Orleans, single-serving jumbo cocktails that once reigned — like the Hurricane, itself a punch acolyte usually served in 20-ounce glassware — are now being overthrown by the peoples’ drink. At SoBou in the French Quarter, “bar chef” Laura Bellucci keeps punch alive. “We’re making punches as a way to get people sharing in an experience, in a communal thing,” she says. “We’re making a huge punch for Burlesque Brunch on Sundays, and we sell it in a huge flask. [Drinkers] can come back and refill the metal flasks. With craft beer, you have the growler, with wine, you have the great boxed wine. I see punch doing the same thing.”

These drinks lend themselves to beautiful displays, and the Instagram effect cannot be discounted in the growing interest: The punch bowls’ gorgeous setups beg to be immortalized, and the joy of tagging all those who shared in drinking them continues the conviviality even after every last drop goes dry. But looking into a jumbo crystal ball, what does the future hold for large, mixed drinks? Barrel-aged cocktails have hit the scene, where ingredients are mixed and placed in a literal barrel, then aged like wine — leading one to think that in the future, shared drinks will just keep getting bigger.

Madina Papadopoulos is a New York based freelance lifestyle writer and author.
Editor: Erin DeJesus