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Punch bowls a throwback to old-school drinking rituals

Punch is back in vogue in places where individualism is out and communal drinking is gaining ground. Pictured is watermelon punch at the Rosewood Hotel Georgia.

If a bespoke cocktail is the boozy expression of a patron's unique identity, punch has to be its polar opposite. With punch, we're all in it together.

That's the beauty of the "flowing bowl," an increasingly common menu item at cocktail bars, where individualism is out and communal drinking is gaining ground. To punch fans, it's the perfect vessel: A throwback to old-school drinking rituals and a less obnoxious form of bottle service.

"It's a lot like ordering a bottle of champagne," explains Robyn Gray, bar manager at the Reflections Lounge at Vancouver's Rosewood Hotel Georgia. "There's a reason you put the chilly ice bucket out in front of the table. People want to be seen doing something luxurious, like idling over a big, splashy bowl of punch."

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Although Gray plays around with novel punch presentations, including the To Be or Not to Be that's served in a crystal skull bottle, he's actually more Martha Washington than Martha Stewart. Most of his punches are inspired by traditional recipes and built in accordance with the colonial era's five-ingredient rule that often made use of tea, spice and rum. Although people are surprised to see the garden-party staple as a menu item, whether it's in a crystal skull or a plain punch bowl it's always an easy sell.

"It's really one of those things where someone sees the first bowl go out, they immediately want to know what they're missing out on," he says. "It's all about having an experience together, sharing what is, essentially, a giant, craft cocktail."

Gray's been serving punch for about six or seven years – four of them at the Hotel Georgia – placing him well ahead of the current trend that sees punch at bars and restaurants as diverse as Montreal's chic, lounge-y Big in Japan and Toronto's elegant Byblos and Oddseoul, a noisy and dressed-down eatery on Ossington Avenue. Earlier this year, Toronto hipster bar Weldon Park even hosted a dedicated punch pop-up (appropriately named the Punch Up), run by Sandy De Almeida (Drake Hotel) and Robin Goodfellow (Ursa's former bar manager).

Why now? Some of it comes down to multiculturalism. At Oddseoul, for example, the sweet and tart makgeolli punch (makgeolli is a mildly alcoholic, milky rice wine hailing from Korea) is a liquid extension of the increasingly popular shared Korean-American plates it's known for.

The pan-Asian influence has dovetailed with New York trends, notably the Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog, a wildly popular and multiple-award-winning Manhattan bar that opened last year with six punches on its book-length menu. For the Dead Rabbit, which exudes a heavy antebellum New York sensibility, punch is a no-brainer. Those inspired by it, however, have recognized one more selling point in the versatile format: It's way less time-consuming to make one punch for a party of four than individual cocktails.

"Punch is the answer to being able to execute a high-quality cocktail at a high speed, high volume," says Goodfellow, now working on a new venture in Toronto's west end. "When you're three deep at the bar and someone orders a Toronto cocktail, it's never going to be as good as it could at a nice calm bar, but a Fish House Punch can be made at a breakneck speed and be just as good."

"It's not just about getting the work out of the way early," he explains. "It's that certain recipes need days to sit. There's a density issue where you're combining alcohol, sugar and citrus and just adding them to a glass and shaking doesn't have the same effect.

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"Punch is a very sacred thing to me," he adds, "and I think it should be more than just a large-format cocktail."

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