What is it about punch? Is it the fruity, easy on the palate taste? The impunity with which you can consume a self-serve alcoholic beverage with no one knowing you’re back for fourths? The festive atmosphere it imparts to a social gathering? Or is it that the punch bowl is a party’s equivalent of the office water cooler: a place to gather, chat and refill? Punch was a fixture at many a party and social gathering in the 1960s, but today you’d be hard pressed to find a household in which the punch bowl hasn’t been mothballed along with the 9-inch black and white TV.
Unlike most alcoholic drinks, when you dip into a punch bowl you often have no idea what’s in it, or how potent it might be. And since many punches have a sweet, fruity taste, it’s easy to forget that a punch can pack a punch. Punch can be made with brandy, gin, sherry, whisky or rum. Indeed, it’s widely thought that the term “punch” is a shortened version “puncheon,” a cask used to transport rum. Others suggest it derives from the Hindu word for “five” (panch) referring to five ingredients in a concoction the British found in 16th century India and which has evolved into modern punch. References to punch in North America date as far back as the late 17th century and it was a staple of many a fancy social gathering. A fine punch bowl was a fixture in the best homes.
Punch was especially popular as a holiday treat, and is a prominent feature of the buffet table at Sterling Cooper’s 1964 Christmas party. (Season 4, Episode 2, “Christmas Comes But Once a Year.”) The firm was struggling and office manager/party planner extraordinaire Joan Harris was under instructions to keep costs down. But when Roger Sterling learns that Lee Garner, Jr., the arrogant, party-boy son of Lucky Strike owner Lee Garner, Sr., is going to be in town, they have to pull out all the stops and put on a show. Lucky Strike is the firm’s biggest account, Lee loves Christmas, and Roger will do whatever it takes to keep his most important happy.
We don’t know what went into the Sterling Cooper holiday punch, so we set out to come up with a punch for The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook that would have been fitting for the firm’s holiday party. Many were too sweet, others too potent. Then we came upon a 1961 advertisement for Canadian Club whisky that included “a recipe for an extra note of cheer,” called Canadian Clubhouse Punch. Since Canadian Club is Don Draper’s preferred brand of whisky we thought it was a natural for the Sterling Cooper holiday party, and we loved it too: a delicious blend of fruit juice, Canadian Club and brandy.
Another favorite punch in The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook is The Stork Club Cocktail, a combination of fruit juices, triple sec and gin which works well as a single cocktail or a punch. At testing parties we hosted while preparing the book, The Stork Club Cocktail disappeared fast.
The famed gossip columnist Walter Winchell once called The Stork Club on 53rd Street near Fifth Avenue, “New York’s New Yorkiest place.” Opened in 1929, the Stork Club became the hub of New York society and attracted movie stars, aristocrats, showgirls, and business moguls. Money, power, and glamour mixed at the Stork Club as in no other place in New York, and its air of exclusivity made it all the more appealing. Among the legions of the rich and famous to frequent the Stork Club were Grace Kelly, Charlie Chaplin, Lucille Ball, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, the Kennedys…and Sterling Cooper’s own Don Draper and his wife, Betty. When comedian Jimmy Barrett seals a deal for his new television show with ABC, the Stork Club hosts the celebration. (Season 2, Episode 7, “The Gold Violin.”) The Stork Club closed in 1965, but the legend lives on.
Today, punch is just as likely to be mixed in a trash bag-lined garbage can at a fraternity party as appear at a country-club wedding. But it was once a sign of sophistication and mixing one just right a form of alchemy.