Punch: A Philosophy for Entertaining

Why offering no choice is the best hosting strategy

Touch of Evil Punch, Agenda, Cocktail

Touch of Evil Punch

Lemons and raspberries add tartness and a beautiful pink hue to this punch, slightly smoky thanks to the addition of mezcal.Marcus Nilsson

It sounds counterintuitive, but the laws of hospitality, properly interpreted, dictate that when it comes to serving boozy drinks at home, it's better to offer your guests almost no choice at all. Hospitality is all about ensuring comfort, and there's nothing more discomforting than promising a guest a choice that you cannot satisfy. Lay out a spread of good booze, mixers, and ice, and suddenly everyone is on the spot. This isn't my brand. How much tonic do I put in? Do I use my fingers on the ice? So on and so forth. Pen yourself up behind the bar with all the liquor in the house and try to bang out drinks for everyone—an Aviation here, an old-fashioned there—and as if by miracle your pleasant guests will eventually, or not so eventually, metamorphose into picky bar customers. Could you make that Aviation with tequila instead of gin, and leave out the crème de violette? Yes, you could, but really now.

This is why, for the past dozen years or so, I've lubricated my parties with punch. One big bowl—or even, when it's hot, Igloo cooler—of it, on a table with a lot of glasses. There's a reason why our ancestors were so devoted to "the flowing bowl." By offering your guests one thing, you're putting them all on the same footing. Nobody has a leg up over anyone else, and everyone can relax and get their buzz on. It even turns into a sort of communal project: Can we finish this? And meanwhile, as the punch sits on ice, it grows weaker, thus becoming self-regulating. (Here I have to admit to breaking my own rule to the extent of stocking some wine and beer for the timid few who need a little help screwing up their courage to try the punch.)

If you're going this way, though, you have to make sure that what you're serving is the least objectionable, most harmonious thing possible. Traditional punches feature a precise balance of sweet and sour, strong and weak, subtlety and spice. They were made that way for a reason. If you make five gallons of punch that's too strong or too fruity or too bitter, too weird, interesting, or spicy, you end up with four gallons of punch and an empty backyard. If you take your ego and creativity out of the mix and make the liquid equivalent of fried chicken, rich and tasty but unchallenging, you'll eventually find your guests passing around the bowl, tilting it up to their mouths to get one of the last sips. When you get the “astronaut shot,” as Washington, D.C., saloonkeeper Derek Brown calls it (from the glimpse of the tippler's face through the bottom of the glass bowl), you have a guest who is thoroughly comfortable. Mission accomplished.