Charles Dickens was a big fan of punches, so as the mercury drops, we asked five bartenders to come up with some modern reinterpretations of his favourite tipple. Please sir, says Miranda Fitzgerald, I want some more…
Punch has a long and varied history, not least in the Victorian era, when novelist Charles Dickens was a great proponent of it both on and off the pages of his novels. From ‘a bowl of Smoking Bishop’ in A Christmas Carol to a Gin Punch in David Copperfield and a Sherry Cobbler in Martin Chuzzlewit, there are few things more Dickensian than a warming bowl of winter punch.
However in recent decades punch has been as misunderstood and maligned as the most woeful of Dickens’ characters. A mainstay of student shindigs using sugar and carbonation to disguise cheap booze, its communal format suggests ingredients slopped together with a lack of due diligence and a disregard for balance.
This most versatile of cocktails is, however, showing signs of a comeback. So in honour of Mr Dickens and in reference to this resurgence, Imbibe devised The Winter Punch Challenge. We asked five leading drinks brands to team up with a top bartender of their choice to create a contemporary winter punch inspired by their favourite Dickens novel or character.
The drinks had to incorporate the five core punch components of alcohol, sugar, citrus, spices and dilution.
And while producing vast, steaming vats of punch in a busy bar might not be altogether practical, the combination of ingredients, texture and presentation needed to come together as a comforting tipple that would provide succour from the winter chills.
Read on to discover whether our bartender contenders managed to live up to our great expectations…
A number of Dickens’ characters frequented Covent Garden, where the author himself once lived. Indeed, you wouldn’t be hard-pushed to imagine one of them knocking on the door of Mr Fogg’s Gin Parlour, a jostling curiosity shop of Victorian knick-knacks, crystal chandeliers and a mind-boggling assortment of gins.
Bar manager Giovanni Magliaro, appropriately dressed in Victorian steampunk, named his punch The Pickwick Papers after Dickens’ first novel, in which ‘they talk about cognac, pineapple rum and gin a lot’. In fact, his drink includes neither of the former two spirits and its hero is the recently released Schweppes Muscovado Dark Spirit Mixer from the brand’s all-natural 1783 range.
Magliaro uses Dictador Treasure, a gin that’s been aged in rum barrels, in place of a dark spirit. ‘If you put a normal gin with a dark mixer you’d lose it a bit, but I wanted to show gin’s versatility,’ he explains. ‘G&T is quite a summery serve, so this is a great alternative for Christmas.’
|The Pickwick Papers
Garnish: Dried pineapple and lime wheel, fresh mint
Method: Muddle roasted pineapple in shaker. Add other ingredients. Shake and double strain over ice. Top up with Schweppes 1783 Muscovado.
* Cut the pineapple into slices, sprinkle with brown sugar, and cook in a pan for 5 to 10 minutes.
The aged gin is mixed with muddled roasted and caramelised pineapple – the fruit being a sign of hospitality in the Victorian era – as well as lime juice, a touch of sugar syrup to boost the pineapple’s sweetness and three dashes of Angostura Bitters. The drink is topped with the 1783 Muscovado, which complements the caramelised pineapple and delivers warm butterscotch and vanilla notes.
The Imbibe team, resplendent in Mr Fogg’s collection of vintage hats, find the drink to be well balanced and rather moreish. While the Angostura Bitters and barrel-aged gin provide a festive spiciness, the punch is less sweet and drier than expected, thanks to the gin and lime juice.
‘It’s a great drink, but it’s more refreshing than comforting,’ says Imbibe editor Chris Losh, ‘and I’m not sure it’s that wintry with all the ice – can we heat it up?’
A seemingly unflappable Magliaro obliges, coming back a few minutes later with a teapot of the punch, a sprig of mint peeking out from under the lid. The team is even more enthusiastic about the warmed version, which emphasises the spices and plays down the citrus, with the warming molasses character of the tonic coming through.
Very much taken with this rich and warming tipple, Imbibe exhorts Magliaro to add it to Mr Fogg’s extensive cocktail list, not least so we can come back for another taste.
Our next stop is the venerable Three Sheets in Dalston, a minimalist slither of a bar characterised by the marble countertop that runs its full length. Noel Venning, who founded it with his brother Max, explains how his punch takes Dickens out of his habitual London context.
In The Pickwick Papers, the main character sets up a club for his friends and suggests they each venture outside London and report their findings to the other club members. ‘The book makes reference to bountiful Kent being the garden of England, filled with “cherries, apples, hops and women”,’ explains Venning.
Leaving aside the hops and women, his drink is based on the amaretto liqueur Disaronno, combined with a homemade fermented cherry cordial and apple vinegar. In typical Three Sheets style, the presentation is stripped back with ice and a sliver of orange to garnish, as well as an abv sitting demurely between 6% and 8%.
|The Pickwick Club
Garnish: Thin orange slice
Method: Build over ice. Stir. Top up with soda.
*Combine 250g frozen cherries in their juice with 100g of water and 5ml of White Labs Champagne Yeast in a sealed, sterilised container. Leave to ferment for between two to three weeks. Strain through a coffee filter and weigh. In relation to the weight of the strained liquid, add 1.5x weight of caster sugar, 1% weight of citric acid, and 0.5% of malic acid. Once dissolved, add 0.8g almond extract and 0.6g rose water per 200ml of cordial.
The punch takes Venning less than a minute to knock out, belying the effort that goes in behind the scenes with the homemade elements. Ostensibly it should feel more summery than it does, but the richness of the Disaronno and the depth of flavour from the apple, almond and cherry create something that’s surprisingly warming and comforting.
‘Everyone has this image of wintry drinks needing to be hot, but Max and I think that you can get good spice and roundness of flavour in cold drinks as well,’ says Venning. ‘You’ll sell more if the drinks are cold as well – you can’t sit down and smash 10 Irish Coffees.’
Venning’s punch has the unusual effect of silencing the Imbibe team as they re-evaluate their concept of a winter punch. ‘It reminds me of a Bakewell tart or Christmas cookie,’ says editorial assistant Kate Malczewski. ‘Though it’s light, it still manages to have a moreish quality that makes it suited to colder months.’
‘It was really interesting the way the acid operated, it wasn’t a shrill top note, but a wider, more subtle, mid-palate acidity that helped make it feel more wintry,’ adds Losh. ‘A more strident acidity would have been more overtly refreshing, but this was just very nicely balanced.’
Original Sin’s subterranean lair off Stoke Newington High Street would have been a hole in a field outside London in Dickens’ day. Fast-forward to the present and the bar, which is the second outpost from the team behind Happiness Forgets, is a warm, brooding mix of brickwork, dark-wood panelling and dimmed lights.
Bar manager Olly Wood delved into The Old Curiosity Shop for inspiration for his drink, reimagining the rakish and brilliantly named character Dick Swiveller’s steaming punch. In his quest for authenticity, he was keen to focus on traditional British ingredients, which of course tallies with
the heritage of Lindores Abbey.
|Dick Swiveller’s Choicest Punch
Garnish: Slice of pear,
Method: Pour ingredients over ice. Quick shake. Strain into glass and top with Harviestoun Schiehallion lager.
*A homemade juice, made up of Comice pears, Russet and Cox apples at a ratio of 4:2:1.
‘Lindores [Abbey Aqua Vitae] is a malted barley spirit that tastes of stone fruits and has this lovely, warm festive flavour,’ explains Wood. ‘I often just drop a shot of Lindores into a beer, which almost mulls it.’
A drink of many parts, Wood pairs the aqua vitae with a pear and apple juice, a greengage liqueur made with British plums, dry curacao, lemon and a homemade honey lager syrup made with typical mulling spices. To amp up the spice and nuttiness, he adds a dash each of walnut and Angostura Bitters.
‘I used heather honey as it’s from the same part of the world [as Lindores Abbey], working on the principle that things that grow together go together,’ says Wood. ‘The greengage liqueur really picks up on that stone fruit connection, while the dry curacao, though not strictly British, has loads of spiced notes that remind me of mince pies.’
The punch has a wonderful velvety mouthfeel and creamy head, with the malty notes in the aqua vitae and the beer playing nicely off each other. Of all the drinks, Wood’s most clearly fits the brief of an overtly wintry, Dickensian punch.
‘I always think of that combination of spirit and beer as being classically Victorian, and cocktails from that era being full-bodied and murky [like this one],’ says Imbibe’s deputy editor Laura Foster. ‘You get a malty finish, but through the palate you get a comforting sweetness from the honey and fruit, which is just what you want from a winter drink.’
‘Because the base spirit is from an abbey, I can imagine the monks having fruit orchards with pears and apples, and hives with honey bees,’ says Losh. ‘It’s really well conceived and executed – not just a wintry drink, but a British wintry drink.’
Enthralled by the crime and squalor of London’s East End, many of Dickens’ most memorable characters inhabited ‘this colourful corner of the city’. The low-beamed, dustily lit interiors of Discount Suit Company recall shady market taverns of that bygone era, even if the area is now firmly occupied by city suits and moustachioed Shoreditch imports.
Bar manager Oli Sagerstrom Blom welcomes Imbibe into the Spitalfields bar to sample his latest creation, The Oliver Twist & Shout. No guesses why he picked the name, although, coincidentally, the dastardly Fagin from the novel lived just down the road in Bethnal Green.
|The Oliver Twist & Shout
Garnish: Grated nutmeg, pineapple leaf, cinnamon stick
Method: Combine ingredients, shake and pour over ice. Top up with ginger beer.
*Combine equal parts lemon rind and caster sugar, avoiding the pith. Store somewhere warm for 24 hours.
‘There would have been a limited range of ingredients available in the 1830s and that was my starting point,’ says Sagerstrom Blom. ‘They wouldn’t have had the right stills to make London Dry, so they would’ve used Old Toms or Genever in punches, which are more malty and heavier.’
Blom mixes Four Pillars Rare Dry, which is made with whole Yarraville oranges to up the festive ante, with a Dickens-inspired pineapple rum. The Madeira and oleo saccharum, a traditional base ingredient for punch, provide body and viscosity.
The semi-fermented pineapple syrup imparts a nice tang, while the ginger beer, which is based on barley and infused with lemon and ginger, lends a lovely spiciness,
as do the rum and nutmeg.
Served in a tankard for added Victorian kudos, the punch is well put together with the homemade ingredients and a classic punch structure. It does, however, have a refreshing and strong citrus tone, and as the tankard turns chilly to touch, its suitability for a winter tipple is questioned. The pineapple leaf garnish, meanwhile, has an undoubtedly tropical bent.
‘Lemon juice doesn’t heat well, so I just used the oleo saccharum with the zest,’ he explains. ‘I used a little less gin and a little more Madeira and let the ginger beer do its thing, then I added hot water instead of ice, which provided the same dilution as when it was shaken.’
The new incarnation, garnished simply with a stick of cinnamon, is universally declared to be a winner. ‘Warmed up and in a smaller mug, it acquired a completely different tone with more of the sweet spices coming through,’ says Jacopo Mazzeo, Imbibe’s news editor.
Finishing our Winter Punch Challenge at Galvin at Windows on the 28th floor of the London Hilton on Park Lane seems fitting, with views of the city where Dickens spent the majority of his
life laid out before us.
Bartender Norbert Kortyan teamed up with Slingsby Gin for the challenge, naming his drink An Old Curiosity, because it ‘will create wonder and intrigue, and satisfy your curiosity with a delectable combination of flavours and Christmas nostalgia’.
Kortyan tried out a number of festive flavours to pair with the spiciness and citrus notes of the gin. His final drink is a punchy (no pun intended) mix of the gin, fig liqueur, PX and mezcal. These are presented on a slate, alongside a twist of orange peel and quartered fig. Though elegant, the drink is quick and easy to create, making it an ideal addition to the menu of a busy venue like Galvin at Windows.
|An Old Curiosity
Garnish: Orange twist, quartered fig, dusting of icing sugar
Method: Combine ingredients over ice. Stir and strain. Spritz with orange peel.50ml Slingsby London Dry Gin
‘I felt the fig liqueur was the best match for this base. It has a nice, nostalgic Chrismassy feel to it, reminiscent of childhood,’ explains the Transylvanian bartender. ‘The fig liqueur and sherry complement the citrusy Slingsby, but I wanted to balance their sweetness, so I added the smokey mezcal, which provides memories of an open fire.’
Offering aromas of orange oils combined with the richness of fig and a slight chocolate, raisin character, the drink tastes decidedly wintry. It’s a lovely and boozy drink, with dried fruit flavours from the PX and fig, a minerality from the mezcal, and spiciness from the gin. As it warms up, you get more of the caramelised notes.
‘I’m struggling to think of many gins that could go up against mezcal and PX,’ says Foster. ‘That smokiness brought to mind a Victorian fog – it tastes almost like an alcoholic mince pie.’
‘The winter character is addressed well by the presentation and use of the small, stemmed glass, as well as the colour, and the fig and orange flavours,’ agrees Mazzeo.
While everyone agreed the drink fitted the bill from a festive perspective, the team weren’t convinced it qualified as a punch. However, Kortyan explained that the drink could be easily adapted. ‘You could add juices and spices to make a punch, or you could scale up the cocktail, possibly adding prosecco to lengthen it,’ he says. ‘For now, I like it this way, because winter is coming, by the way.’