Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke: The Flowing Bowl

"A merry Christmas, Bob!" said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. "A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year! I'll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss our affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!"

A Christmas Carol regularly gets trotted out this time of year (or DVDs of Scrooge McDuck cartoons do, anyway), to mark the holiday with Dickens' tale of redemption. While Tiny Tim's treacly "God bless us, every one!" is enough to set my teeth on edge, I have to admit that this reference to Smoking Bishop in the closing scene at the Cratchits puts me in the holiday mood.

The old Smoking Bishop is one of a family of once-common drinks that now make their sole appearance during the holidays, if then. But this near-forgotten class of punches is worth rediscovering, for both culinary and social reasons. As Eric Felten writes in How's Your Drink?, "Of all the outward signs of the miser's redemption, the final confirmation of Scrooge's transformation comes when he takes ladle in hand to serve up the Bishop."

Scrooge's Smoking Bishop is a mix of port, water, sugar and spices, served steaming in a bowl adorned with clove-studded roasted oranges or lemons. A kind of mulled wine, smoking bishop is also close kin to the Christmas Bishop (also called Cambridge Bishop or simply Christmas Rum Punch), made with rum and apple cider; and the Farmer's Bishop, with apple brandy replacing the rum in the Christmas Bishop. All of these punches are typically served hot in mugs, and with the possible exception of the Smoking Bishop ("port catches fire about as easily as soggy kindling," Felten writes), all are briefly flamed prior to serving, to create an arresting visual display coupled with the festive aroma of spices (and also to slightly decrease the firepower of the spirits in the bowl by burning off some of the alcohol).

Should a hot punch be too much for your holiday party to handle, Felten also comes to the rescue in his recent column in the Wall Street Journal, in which he works his way through almost every Christmas punch recipe he could find (!) before settling on two delectable cold punches: the French Christmas Punch and the Merry Christmas Punch, both fueled with cognac and maraschino liqueur and given a bubbly kick with the addition of chilled champagne.

Making punch can take some work, but in the long run it's easier than mixing cocktails all night, and a bowl of punch is a much better ice-breaker than a glass of chardonnay will ever be. What are your plans for your holiday festivities? If you're planning on breaking out the punch bowl, let us know what you're making.

About the author: Paul Clarke blogs about cocktails at The Cocktail Chronicles and writes regularly on spirits and cocktails for Imbibe magazine. He lives in Seattle, where he works as a writer and magazine editor.

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