Note: First Looks give previews of new drinks and menus we're curious about. Since they are arranged photo shoots, we do not make critical evaluations or recommendations.
"Punch is a loan word from the Hindi language, from the word meaning five," explains Will Duncan, the beverage manager at Punch House. "Punch is a balance of five flavors; it always balances strong, weak, bitter, sour, and sweet." This is the first of many lessons in history and mixology to be learned at Punch House, Chicago's first punch-focused cocktail bar which opened in Pilsen two weeks ago.
Punch House is part of the Thalia Hall project owned by the team behind The Empty Bottle and Longman & Eagle. The project consists of three main parts: a main floor restaurant (Dusek's Beer and Board), a performance venue and, in the basement, Punch House. The decor of the bar evokes a slice of history, though not history that goes back to ancient India. "Although punches go back to the 1600s, equating it in my mind to Grandma and Grandpa's basement just feels right," said Duncan." The interior is full of 60s-era touches, including wood paneling, a fish tank behind the bar, a wall of antique tchotchkes, and a giant taxidermy fish.
Before he started at Punch House, Duncan had worked with the owners of The Empty Bottle for about six years. He started as a door guy, worked his way up to being the GM at Longman & Eagle and then jumped to this new project. And he's convinced that there's no reason that the drinks at Punch House should be any less precise than the Michelin-starred cuisine at L&E. "I've always had a genuine fascination with beverage; the social aspect of imbibing as a group, the good times that ensue. And there's no reason that it can't be treated with the same elegance and precision as food preparation."
Duncan explains that a punch, despite what some bartenders may think, is not just a large batch of cocktails. "There are cocktail bars that are batching their cocktails, but we're different—we've chosen punch as our focus. Punch is the original party drink and it is, by design, a batched cocktail. But we're using traditional methods that go back to the 16th century. We're just not taking a shortcut by making huge batches of cocktails."
In order to be a punch, a mix must have those five flavors—five flavors that are named on each Punch House coaster. "There's always going to be citrus, there's always going to be a sweetener, there's always going to be a base spirit and there's always going to be a weak portion and a seasoning portion, whether it be bitter or spice. That weak portion is some portion of water, or it might be tea, or juice, or wine," explains Duncan.
The important thing that sets punch apart? The oleo saccharum. "It's Latin, it means 'oily sugar,'" said Duncan. "Every historic punch recipe begins this way. It's combining sugar with citrus peels. The granular texture of the sugar macerates the peels, and the peels want to give up their oils, so you pull all this beautiful aromatic lemon or orange oil out. That's not in a batched cocktail. It's part of what brings nuance to a punch."
Conveniently for a bartender, the focus on punch also speeds up service. The restaurant has a custom kegerator, and almost all of the punches are made in advance and dispensed on draft. The daily prep process is more like what happens in a kitchen than a bar, as some of the punches take days to make. This introduces some new challenges for a bar manager. "I've learned how to use Excel really well," laughs Duncan. "I have a master spreadsheet that allows me to plug in a test batch based on a single 750 mL bottle of spirit, and my spreadsheet automatically scales it up. It also gives me my costs and my portion control."
The punches are all $8 a glass, $32 a carafe (four servings) or $59 a bowl (8 servings). "Most cocktail bars offer a punch or two, but it's often a $200-plus option!" said Duncan. "They are really geared towards large groups, which is why a lot of bars find that it doesn't sell. It was really important to me to offer different sized portions and to offer a bowl option that is an accessible price."
There are also a series of "not punch" cocktails at Punch House, including a Vieux Carré, Negroni, and an Old Fashioned. "The cocktail are a deliberate counterpoint to the punch style—they are all boozy, stirred drinks." There's a small food menu that includes oysters, wood roasted olives, blue crab dip, and a Slagel Farms beef burger served with duck fat fries. Plus, you can always head upstairs to Dusek's for dinner.