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By the glass or by the bowl, summer punches keep you cool

Emma Janzen

If you're looking for a convivial tipple to strengthen old friendships and spark new ones this summer, consider bypassing the individual bottle of beer, glass of wine or cocktail, and opt instead for punch.

Punch is an inherently social drink. Brimming with alcohol, it serves as the symbolic campfire, a place where friends gather to share a communal experience, basking in the warm glow of copious amounts of booze.

For backyard barbecues and pool parties, punches are easy and economical for larger groups of friends and family. But if gathering in the air-conditioned interior of a bar and being served is your idea of a better time, bartenders across the city are finding ways to liven up their drink menus with an assortment of punches by the glass, respectably sized communal carafes and traditional punch bowls filled to the brim.

For punch served with a healthy-size pouring ladle in dainty etched glassware, start at Hillside Farmacy, where the signature house punch can be ordered by the individual glass or by the bowl, which holds approximately 20 glasses' worth of punch.

"People love the house punch," says general manager Mallory Craig. "It's a great drink, and people are attracted to both the taste and the experience. Other guests of the restaurant see how interactive and different it is and then order a bowl for themselves."

Hillside's house punch recipe remains the same year-round, but its light and versatile personality makes it especially appealing for summer consumption. Instead of an inordinate number of liquors coming together to form the base, as is standard form for many classic punches, only a small percentage of gin lays the groundwork, making it slightly less potent so you can enjoy a few glasses. Juniper-forward gin plays cordially with hints of hibiscus syrup and bitters, all of which are enhanced and tied together by perky grapefruit juice.

The base of the punch is made about three times a week and then topped with a splash of cava by the order, so that the first sip always showcases an excitable fizz of carbonation.

Enlivening punch, without spirits

Because Missy Valentine, bar manager at Elizabeth Street Cafe, can't use traditional spirits in her punches (the restaurant does not have a liquor license), she relies on carbonated ingredients such as sparkling sake, Champagne or even Fresca to keep the tipples invigorated. "With our summer punches, every one of them has some kind of bubble, because in the heat, I really like bubbles, whether it's boozy or not," she says.

All eight of the punches on the menu — available in two sizes of carafe — embody a fresh, seasonal mentality, incorporating an array of herbs, citrus juice and produce, and seasoned with bitters, spice and even sriracha in the case of the Spicy Beer Punch.

The Sake and Plum Wine Punch is a great place to start if you're ordering food. A co-mingling of earthy basil and lemongrass, cool cucumber and lychee, fleshy plum wine and warm sake complement the featherweight nature of spring rolls or a delicate bowl of vermicelli noodles.

Like the sake and plum wine concoction, other punch options on the menu are also low in alcohol, boasting sake, vermouth or other aperitif liqueurs as the base ingredient instead of high-proof spirits.

Valentine extols the virtues of the low-alcohol punch, explaining that especially in the summer, it's important to be able to have a few glasses without crossing the line of inebriation. She also says the beer and wine license has allowed the staff to throw out traditional notions of punch composition and freely experiment. "It's really good to get out of that structure. Experiment and find the flavors. There's no real rules."

No other bar or restaurant in Austin comes close to offering the scope of punch that Elizabeth Street does, but from what Valentine says, the investment is paying off. "We have been selling more punches than wine and even beer so far this summer, which is exciting." She says the service has become so appealing, that now you can order punch to-go as well.

"That's starting to become very popular. We have these little jars with a sticker, and we give them to the people without ice. You just have to add ice. It's fun."

Vintage cocktails, with a punch

While the bar staff at Elizabeth Street use improvisation and the best of their available resources to craft concoctions by the carafe, others look to historical recipes for inspiration.

At Fino Restaurant Patio & Bar, bar manager Francisco Terrazas says he likes making punches, "but I lean more towards doing old stuff and perfecting the way I do that instead of making new drinks. I like history and finding out where drinks came from."

Since taking over behind the stick earlier this year, Terrazas infused this interest into the menu by offering a classic Pisco Punch, a recipe from early San Francisco cocktail history.

For the summer menu, he's updated a vintage recipe for tamarind punch, which he explains was first printed in Charles Campbell's 1867 book, "American Barkeeper," and can now be found mentioned in David Wondrich's modern treatise on all things cocktail, "Imbibe!"

The Terrazas version of the punch is grounded with tamarind syrup, a confoundingly complex, slightly earthy but sweet ingredient, which is then added to a pool of Jamaican rum, hearty cognac, blushing raspberry syrup and tart lemon juice.

When asked why he chose to feature such a liquor-heavy punch during the hottest months of the year, Terrazas explained that he doesn't want shy away from the use of dark spirits just because it's hot outside. "It's hard to move away from the idea of lighter spirits during the summer. I've seen really good summer whiskey punch recipes. I'd say find a way to use darker spirits, and don't shy away from them for no good reason."

The other reason this punch works for summer is that it's served over crushed ice. Terrazas explains that this element is crucial to making the otherwise weighty combination of spirits appropriate for the hot weather, because crushed ice chills the drink at a faster rate than cubed ice would. "I like the way the drink changes and mellows a little bit. It's interesting to see the flavors even out as the ice dilutes with it," he says.

Pushing the envelope with carbonation

Over at Bar Congress, bar manager Jason Stevens has flipped the paradigm of punch on its head by changing both the standard format and vessel — from punch bowl or carafe and cup to soda siphon and individual bottle. "I've made a classic punch made in the classic punch style — you have your strong, your weak, your sour and your spice — but we've been exploring that punch formula through bottled carbonated cocktails."

The practice of carbonating cocktails and bottling them started in Portland with progressive bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler (whose name might ring familiar, as he also paved the road for modern barrel-aged cocktail techniques). In Austin, the trend has popped up under the mainstream radar via cocktail catering company Lucky 13, which carbonates cocktails for events but has yet to hit the bar scene in full force.

Stevens aims to remedy this. "The trend in bottled cocktails has gone towards aperitif cocktails, which I absolutely love, but I've been doing classic punches, and especially ones that could use some fizz or carbonation."

Stevens says that carbonating the punch appealed to him primarily because the process achieves the same effect as using sparkling wine, or another effervescent agent, but allows for that waltz of bubbles on the tongue to flow without the added flavor of Champagne or Prosecco. It's a way of being able to control and enhance the isolated flavors that go into the final product, without having to sacrifice the fanciful burst of bubbles, he says.

Another reason to do the smaller portions of punch (they are served only by the individual bottle) is that there's not enough space at Bar Congress to feature a fully fledged punch service.

Stevens says carbonating at home is a process that's easier to achieve than one might think, with the proper equipment. He suggests one of two options. "One, you can force carbonate in an iSi or similar soda siphon and have a carbonated canister of punch to be dispensed over ice as needed, or two, you can use a Fizz Gizz or similar carbonator to carbonate in smaller batches, and then bottle and cap in small bottles to have small boozy sodas."

Either way, he thinks this "modern style" of punch is a fun and easy drink for the summer. "It takes very little time, energy and expense to carbonate. It doesn't work for huge parties, but if you keep a batch that's super chilled, you can get another carbonated batch going in about 10-15 minutes and then keep cycling that way."

No matter whether you are making simple punches with just a few ingredients and bubbles or complicated ones with exotic ingredients, the most important element of a successful summer punch is having a few friends to share in the festivities.

Contact Emma Janzen at 445-1772 Twitter: @liquidaustin