Food & Drink

Follow simple formula to create a zesty holiday punch

Karina Martinez is beverage director of the recently opened Saddle Rock restaurant near 18th and L streets, and known around Sacramento’s thriving cocktail industry for the impeccable flavors in her drink recipes and thoughtful presentations.
Karina Martinez is beverage director of the recently opened Saddle Rock restaurant near 18th and L streets, and known around Sacramento’s thriving cocktail industry for the impeccable flavors in her drink recipes and thoughtful presentations. Courtesy of Karina Martinez

The formula is one that will result in plenty of holiday fun and flavors:

One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong and four of weak.

This ratio lays out the basic recipe for the beloved drink known as punch, a beverage that stands among the most classic of cocktails and the perfect centerpiece for a holiday party. An ornate punch bowl with garnishes floating on top offers not only a conversation piece, but also a bit of sweet-and-boozy fuel for holiday mingling.

Karina Martinez certainly knows her punch. She’s beverage director of the recently opened Saddle Rock restaurant near 18th and L streets, and is known around Sacramento’s thriving cocktail industry for the impeccable flavors in her drink recipes and thoughtful presentations. With holiday entertaining on the horizon, Martinez offered tips on punching up your next party with this tasty drink.

The formula

The ratio mentioned above is basically a balance between sour (generally in the form of citrus), sweet (syrups, sugar, cordials), booze and water (or another diluting agent). This formula can be scaled for a single-serving cocktail in a glass, or extrapolated for a party-sized punch bowl meant to serve many. But no matter the size, the overall goal is to achieve a balance of flavors, not too sweet and not too sour, a boozy kick in the background and some enhancements through spices or another ingredients to round out the drink.

Some batches of lemons or limes may be more sour than others, and some syrups might also vary in their strength of sweetness. When it comes to concocting a punch recipe, Martinez recommends tasting as you go along and making any adjustments to the formula as needed.

“The ratio gives you a strong starting point,” Martinez said. “But it’s like grandma’s recipes. You’re going to do some things by taste. For most things, if you have a good palate, you can adjust.”

Fall and winter flavors

For the holiday season, Martinez opts to highlight flavors and ingredients that are indicative of the cooler months. A spiced syrup, which she likes to concoct for holiday punches, includes cinnamon, star anise and such spices as cardamom and even black pepper also work well as wintery accents. A summer punch might opt for a brighter approach with mint and lavender. But with a winter punch, a bit of more pungent spice gives the feeling of enjoying an adult beverage by the yule log on a cold winter’s night.

“You want there to be some heat, not in terms of temperature but flavors,” Martinez said about winter punches. “(Try) anything that’s associated with winter and autumn, like cinnamon and juniper berries.”

Ice, ice, baby

While ice might seem like an afterthought, it’s actually one of the most crucial elements of punch. It not only keeps the punch chilled and refreshing, but also is a key diluting agent – part of the “weak” in the formula – that prevents the punch from going down too potently. In terms of presentation, a smoothly carved block of ice in the middle of the punch bowl would be ideal. But for most of us, we’ll likely be using cubes from the freezer or a bag of ice from the store.

Keep in mind that cubes will melt at a much faster rate than block ice, so the remaining amount of “weak” – be it sparkling or still water, or even tea – will need to be adjusted.

“If you have the resources, block ice would be wonderful,” Martinez said. “But you would need to add enough water so the punch has a kick but not be boozy on the tongue.”

Present the punch

Now it’s time to bring out the punch bowl. The pageantry associated with punch remains part of its appeal, but when it comes to glasses, Martinez finds the old-school versions not comfortable in the hand. She recommends serving the punch in glasses or cups that partygoers will find easy to carry, with an extra premium on glasses that you wouldn’t mind being broken. (This is a party, after all, and stuff’s bound to break.)

Also, if Martinez is hosting the party, she’ll personally serve the first 10 guests or so a glass of punch. Think of it as a kind of icebreaker tactic.

“It’s like a buffet line – nobody wants to be the first person,” Martinez said. “Hand them a glass, and as others come, they’ll see it and it inspires them to try it.”

Punch as a party favor

So your holiday soiree’s been a huge hit, and guests posted oodles of punch pics on Instagram. But what to do when guests are going home and there’s still some punch left in the bowl?

Punch to go.

Martinez keeps backup bottles which can be used as party favors – plus the host won’t be stuck with a bunch of leftover punch at the end of the night. The remaining punch, minus any ice, can be funneled into bottles to be savored at a later time. Most punches will keep with a shelf life of about three days in the refrigerator.

“You never know if they’ll drink the well dry at the party, or it’s a more conservative group that doesn’t want to get too tipsy,” Martinez said. “But you don’t want to waste money and dump the punch down the drain. This is just a nice gesture at the end of the night.”

Chris Macias: 916-321-1253, @chris_macias

Winter punch

Serves 15

By Karina Martinez of Saddle Rock restaurant.

20 ounces rye whiskey

10 ounces sloe gin

7 ounces orange juice

6 ounces lemon juice

20 ounces spiced syrup (see accompanying recipe)

20 ounces sparkling water

Ice (1 large block, or approximately eight trays’ worth of ice cubes)

Combine all ingredients in a large punch bowl and stir to blend. Serve immediately. Leftover punch can be kept in refrigerator for up to three days.

Spiced syrup

By Karina Martinez of Saddle Rock restaurant.

8 cups water

6 cinnamon sticks

4 star anise pods

16 cups sugar

Bring water to a boil with cinnamon sticks and star anise. Add sugar and let simmer until dissolved. Let syrup completely before adding to punch or other cocktail.

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