A group of 20-something hipsters walk into a bar and begin scouring the cocktail menu. The equally young mixologist behind the wood fields questions, scornfully deriding selections that don’t quite measure up, and nudging the group as a whole towards his own personal favourite prohibition- era derivative.
Some may argue there is precious little wrong with this approach. The cosmo-swilling hordes need to be taught a lesson, after all. But here’s the thing: a sazerac is a delicious, classic drink, according to a growing number of cocktail aficionados, but it’s not likely to t a glowing review from someone more accustomed to sipping a candy martini. It’s too strong, too boozy and, to the shock of many, has a bitter component.
So what’s a good bartender to do? Through much of the last decade the answer was simple: grab bottle after bottle of syrupy pre-made vodka coolers and collect the cash. But, the revival of handcrafted cocktails has brought with it an unique, albeit very old solution — the punch bowl.
Not yet germane to the Canadian mixology scene, but already creating waves in cutting-edge markets such as London and New York, the reintroduction of the classic Dickensian punch bowl is an exciting trend. And, at Barchef in downtown Toronto, Frankie Solarik has jumped on board for envelopepushing and logistical reasons. “We’ve been getting crazy busy on a lot of nights, with people showing up with a party of 10. The punch bowl allows us to give groups an experience that exemplifies what we’re trying to do with our drinks, but it also gives us some flexibility.” Solarik can put together one of his signature punch bowls for a group of six in less than a minute, which will keep the table happily sipping for 30 to 45 minutes.
But, to ensure happiness, Solarik advises against making an enormous version of your personal favourite. To work, it has to be a drink with broad appeal. “With punch bowls you have to choose your ingredients for approachability. Nobody is going to want an entire bowl full of negroni,” he jokes. “Some cocktails are just way more approachable on the palate, and those tend to be the ones that work best, so you need lots of fresh fruit, acids and rum components, to keep that classic punch flavour and feel. For us, it’s important to have the same quality and complexity you’ll find in our individual cocktails, so each sip from the punch bowl has to maintain the composition of flavour, but it also has to be refreshing. Everyone at the table has to enjoy it.”
Given the current slate of offerings at Barchef, parched Torontonians are in good hands this summer. Examples are The Jimmy Cliff ($75), a blend of thyme-infused spiced rum, fresh lime, vanilla simple syrup and ginger beer or The Marley ($75), a concoction of spiced rum, lime, honey and black pepper syrup, sparkling wine and fresh pineapple juice. “The response has been awesome,” says Solarik. “We started with two punch bowls on the menu, and we’re up to six now, ranging from $75 to $100.”
Sweet, acidic and unabashedly fun, the latest craze on the global scene, is everything a cooler used to be: broad based, easy drinking and refreshing. Only now, this latest iteration is something its pre-fab forbearers could never be: handcrafted and undeniably cool.