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Hot Punch for That Holiday Glow

If there’s one thing to remember in this season of nearly non-stop celebration, it is this: nothing warms up after-dinner conversation quite like a quaff of hot punch.

Punch is a fabulous beverage option that not only guarantees holiday spirit, but is affordable, easily scaled, and quick to prepare. Most can be batched in advance, freeing up precious time.

Punch is delightfully self-serve, giving guests a reason to mingle while allowing hosts to direct their attention elsewhere. Ladling fragrant punch from a large communal bowl is a highly sociable act, strengthening social ties and punctuating the occasion with good cheer. A fabulous punch can also smooth over nearly any rough spot (such as forgetting that special dessert) or distract well-meaning yet critical relatives. And, if your best-laid plans have finally unraveled, a sip of punch can help calm frazzled nerves.

A vintage soup tureen does double duty as a hot punch bowl, and formal coffee cups stand in for punch cups.

For after dinner, we find that a fruity punch plays nicely with the warming spices found in nearly every autumnal pie or wintery dessert. For the holidays, we find that a healthy dose of nostalgia also plays well, so we sought out our punch inspiration from America’s colonial era.

Americans have been sipping hard cider and rum since long before they were Americans. In fact, the Stone Fence, a cocktail born in America’s earliest days, is a simple combination of those two favored spirits. Early settlers desirous of respite from winter’s grasp were also known to whip up rum-and-butter, a spirit-lifting toddy of butter, rum, and hot water. With these historically courage-boosting tipples in mind, we turn to our bookshelves.

Surprisingly, an ideal hot cider punch is found in the tropically-minded “Trader Vic's Book of Food and Drink” (1946).
Thanksgiving Punch
(Serves 10 to 12 people)

Here's a potion that deserves a festive setting. If I were going to serve this to friends on Thanksgiving Day, or any day for that matter, I'd rig myself up a sort of chafing dish setup on the buffet or side table, bank it with fruits and fall berries and candles, and set the mugs around the base while the mixture kept hot over the alcohol lamp or an electric plate.

1 quart Jamaica rum (Ron Merito or Brugal)
2 teaspoons allspice
1 quart apple cider
3 sticks cinnamon
3 teaspoons butter

Heat in saucepan to develop flavor; serve in heated mugs.

Bergeron, V. J. Trader Vic's Book of Food and Drink. 1946. Doubleday & Company, Inc. Pp 117-118.
Somewhere between a mulled cider and a hot buttered rum, Trader Vic's Thanksgiving Punch is nostalgic, festive, and fun, putting it well within in the realm of ideal drinks for all to enjoy. Apple, that humble autumn orchard fruit, provides refreshing counterpoint in a season dominated by the flavors of pumpkin, orange, and pomegranate. Besides, who can resist the call of fresh pressed cider? Not us!

Trader Vic’s minimal-fuss recipe requires a few readily-available, inexpensive ingredients. We added a few of our own touches to better suit modern tastes: applejack for a bit more dryness, lemon juice to reinforce the apple-tartness, and pimento dram to add some rich spice to the mix. Our version is sure to grab the attention of habitual imbibers, near teetotallers, and everyone else in need of a little after-dinner loosening up.

Assembling this drink is a breeze. We simply heat all the ingredients in a 5-quart slow cooker until heated through, then keep warm. The slow cooker does double duty of both heating and warming, making it the perfect appliance for this and any other hot punch.

Trader Vic calls for Jamaican rum (the 1940s choice for a heavier rum). Heavier rums have high congener contents — congeners are responsible for the flavor and aroma of rum — and those can vary from sweet and fruity to oily and almost fuel-like. We haven’t yet settled on one that pairs with fresh apples, so in this punch, we favor a medium-bodied aged rum as our vehicle. Jamaica’s Appleton Extra rum is excellent. A good Barbados rum such as Mount Gay Eclipse or Cockspur also works beautifully.

McIntosh apples grown in Vermont.
A thematic pumpkin leaf dish of
Cassia cinnamon sticks and whole nutmegs.
Fresh Vermont apple cider is our go-to cider. The acidic nature of Vermont soil yields an apple that is crisp, firm, sweet, and aromatic. When pressed into cider, the resulting juice is cloudy, with a refreshing balance of sweet and tart. It’s available in many supermarkets and can be ordered online.

While Vermont cider remains the apple of our eye, we’ve found that most top-quality fresh-pressed cider work well. Look for fresh cider in the refrigerated section of your market, and choose cloudy ciders over clear varieties.

Apple cider is plenty sweet on its own: be sure to avoid any that contain added sugar or spices. To cut back on that sweetness, we add a bit of applejack, an apple brandy historically made in New Jersey and environs. Laird's is our hands-down favorite in punches.

Spices floating in a punch may look picture-pretty, but we feel that the bits and bobs can impede the fine art of ladling said punch into one’s cup. We do away with the ground and whole spices and instead add a small pour of pimento dram (an allspice cordial which originated in the West Indies) to add the magic of nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, and cloves to our punch.

As far as butter goes, pass on that half-used stick in the fridge, and use the freshest sweet butter you can find. That is is unsalted goes without saying.

For an attractive (and easy) presentation, set up your slow cooker on a table, surround it with punch cups, add a shallow bowl of whole spices (along with a small hand grater), and let your guests help themselves.

While you’re at it, enjoy a cup of cheer yourself. After all, parties are for guest and host alike!

Hot Buttered Cider Punch

Makes 12-14 servings

Hot cider punch is a must-have at all our winter parties. For rum, consider Appleton Extra, Mount Gay Eclipse, or Cockspur. More guests? This punch can be doubled (or tripled). Leftover punch (a rarity in most homes) can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
  • 1 (750-ml) bottle medium-bodied aged rum
  • 1 1/2 cups applejack
  • 3/4 ounce pimento dram
  • 4 cups unfiltered apple cider
  • 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, sliced into 4 pieces
  • Whole nutmeg and/or Cassia cinnamon sticks, for grating (optional)
Pour rum, applejack, pimento dram, apple cider, and lemon juice into a 5-quart slow cooker. Float butter pats on top.

Cover the slow cooker; cook on LOW for about 2 hours to heat through, then keep warm. Serve in 6-ounce punch or coffee cups, garnished with grated nutmeg or cinnamon, as desired.

Stovetop directions: Simmer ingredients in a covered 4-quart saucepan over low heat for about an hour. Transfer to a warmed chafing dish for serving.