Let's head back, way back, before the cocktail. I imagine the origins of punch to be something along the lines of, "And God said, ‘Let there be punch!' And there was punch, and we drank it." Hundreds of years later, we're still drinking it, as punch makes a fresh renaissance from the sticky basements of frat houses — where its shadow side has dwelt as "jungle juice" — and onto the bartops of respected establishments across the country. Maybe comparing punch to jungle juice is a stretch, but it's not like there's a hard and fast definition of what must be used to make it. This, my fellow imbibers, gives your barkeeps incredible breadth for creativity.
Before the birth of the cocktail, in the 19th century, punch was the go-to for mixed-liquor drinking. "If you were drinking in 1776," says J. Endress, a bartender for The Commoner and Tender, "you'd be drinking out of a giant punch bowl with everyone else. It was a cultural, communal thing." Now, with the fascination with classic drinks firmly in place, those punch bowls are being dusted off and refilled. Endress believes that punch's allure is the ease of service that pre-batched drinks provide, and the unintimidating platform it can give to new liquors and flavors. According to him, "You want to have a conversation with someone, but you need to get your way in the door first."
Since it's ideal for summer parties, let me crack the door on making punch at home. The word punch comes from the Hindi panch, meaning five. To stick with a traditional recipe, Endress recommends applying this number to your ingredients list. For further instruction on balancing flavors, call on a Barbadian rhyme many bartenders use to inform their punches: "One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak."
For enlightening reading on the history of punch, pick up David Wondrich's book Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl.