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I usually stick to the tried and true, where you can taste the booze, rather than mixed drinks. The seasons for me just vary from gin and tonic to scotch and water. There is of course a brief season in May when the only possible beverage is the mint julep, reverently made. (I have had mint juleps in Saigon, when a nostalgic group celebrated the Kentucky Derby and we all got quite tearful. Not one of us was from Kentucky.) I will also make an exception for the Singapore Sling, as served up by the barman at the Long Bar of the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. And of course, you should know what Paul Henreid as Victor Laszlo is talking about when he orders champagne cocktails for himself and Ilsa at Rick’s Cafe Americain (chilled dry champagne, half teaspoon each of sugar and of brandy, a touch of Chartreuse).
Aside from that, the Christmas holiday season in cold weather climes requires a hot punch. This is not the time for nuanced wine tasting. It is the season for festivity, and a drink that warms you up while announcing its presence throughout the house with savory odors of the season. Such a drink is my hot wassail punch, refined over the years to taste. It all began actually when someone made me a present of a bottle of brandy that was basically at the low end of the scale, too bad to serve, almost up to diluting with water as a fine a l’eau, but having a certain rigorous power. As a base for a punch, this might do rather well. But what to add?
I remembered the great pleasure of taking a hot buttered rum on the terrace of the Rhumerie Martinique in Paris, and wonder whether it is still there, dispensing inexpensive cheer near the student section of the Left Bank. And so the welcoming smell of a warm drink became part of what I was looking for. Finally, I remembered how pleasant sangria can be on warm evenings. If that was the case in the summer, why wouldn’t the basic recipe adapt itself for winter drinking, this time warmed instead of chilled? And so inexpensive red wines were added. This is definitely not the place for your prize wines, nor for anything delicate. What you want is something with fruity flavor that will hold up, something like jug Rhone wine (for those of you lucky enough to be in Provence), or perhaps a hearty Burgundy. That’s too thick by itself, and will get more so if heated. So I cut it with soda water as the punch is warmed. And I add sugar to taste, and orange peels studded with cloves. It was good, but not very Christmasy. Something else was definitely needed, a spice perhaps.
You don’t want to know the various spices that were tried over the years and discarded. Finally I found the right one, and by far the most expensive ingredient of the punch. It is Cardamom. A little does go a long way, but as it is heated, the odor, combined with the wine and brandy and other spicy smells, gives a welcoming note of wassail to your guests.
This is not a terribly expensive punch, and it fits the season exactly. It does need attention, though. Don’t just let it boil away. I make a large amount on the stove, at very low temperature for half an hour or so before the guests arrive. You can experiment and put it on medium for a few minutes, then lower the temperature if you are pressed for time.
The pot I use is a large one that did good service when apples were dunked in it during Halloween parties for our children. It fits over four different burners on the stove, and seems to attract guests like a magnet. Have one or two other punch stations, and fill those bowls from the central warming punch as needed.
Here is my recipe. Feel free to vary the ingredients. I find it serves 50-75 happy people.
Combine one bottle of brandy with four magnums of sturdy red wine, heating evenly as the wine is added.
Add six bottles of soda water, not all at once.
Stir in sugar to taste. (I start with two cups, then add more as needed.)
Decorate with whole orange peels studded with cloves.
Add a teaspoonful of Cardamom.
Thoroughly mix the punch, stirring slowly with a wooden spoon (so that your fingers don’t get burned). Warm slowly and thoroughly.
Serve when new acquaintances start to act like old friends.
NOTE: If you have an apron from a pricey bar or bistro, wearing it is encouraged once a year. This is your moment.