Holiday Spirits

Q San Francisco
November 1999
Pages 52-53

Holiday Spirits

“He has given us plenty of merriment, I am sure,’ said Fred,’ and it would be ungrateful not to drink his health. Here is a glass of mulled wine ready to our hand at the moment; and I say, “Uncle Scrooge.”‘ Admittedly, Uncle Scrooge had his own experiences of holiday spirits to deal with. In my mind, his nephew Fred had a much better approach. Holidays have traditionally been times to celebrate with a wide variety of spirits. As children, we waited eagerly for our gaily wrapped packages (in my family no trees were involved, we had a train made out of large foil wrapped cardboard boxes – each car of the train containing the Chanukah gifts for one member of the family).

With just as much anticipation we awaited the annual chance to have just a little bit of rum in our eggnog. Friends down the block got to sample a small taste of that year’s Christmas punch. A few weeks earlier we had fallen over ourselves to get a medicine cup sized glass of port with our thanksgiving pumpkin pie. At New Year’s Eve? Just a taste of delightfully bubbly champagne. Why, for some youngsters, this was more alcohol in a few dozen days than the entire rest of the year put together!

It has been tradition for centuries to serve some form of a punch or flavored wine through the wintery holiday season. That tradition is often lost as we explore our way through wine auction purchases, the latest California cult sampling, or wax philosophically at some single malt scotch. At best, we might find ourselves pulling out a bottle of a particularly favored brandy that we’ve saved for just such a special occasion.

I say it is time to bring back the punch, the grög, the mulled wine, the bishop…

Many a century ago, there was the “punch” – a British colonial drink made from tea, spices, sugar and fruit and spiked with rum. The term came from the Hindustani word pānch, meaning “five”, and tradition has it that a punch should contain the five above listed ingredients. The French came up with their own version: less tea, and brandy substituting for the rum. In fact, until the 1830s, rum was banned in France in order to avoid commercial competition with locally produced brandies. Perhaps the most traditional of the punches is the marquise punch, which I recommend highly.


1 bottle of sauternes
½ cup of sugar
peel of 1 lemon
3 cloves
1 cup brandy or white rum

Heat all the ingredients except the brandy together until a fine foam appears on the surface and it seems just about ready to boil. Stir to make sure all the sugar is dissolved. Pour through a strainer (to remove the peel and cloves) into your warmed punch bowl. Gently warm the brandy in a saucepan and then light. Pour while still flaming into the punch. Do this while your guests are present so that they can “ooh” and “aah” appropriately.

I have no doubt that someone will insist on making grög, that old tradition of the British navy. While perfectly nice, it is a simple warming together of rum, honey, lemon peel and diluted with water in order to stretch the seamen’s rations of rum. Play, experiment, come up with your own version.

Having mentioned it, it is probably incumbent on me to explain the “bishop”. An ancient drink, it is made by heating claret (red Bordeaux) or port with orange peel and cinnamon. Alternate versions use red Rhine wines (a “cardinal”) or white tokay (a “pope”); all basically refer to the color of the drink versus the color of the robes…you get the idea. The most interesting recipe I’ve found for this drink is called the “English Bishop”.


1 bottle of red port (not tawny)
1 orange
1 handful of cloves
¼ cup of brown sugar
1 cup of cognac

Take the orange and stick all the cloves in it so that it is as well studded as a leather boy at the spike… Dip it in a little of the cognac, just enough to wet it thoroughly, then roll it in the brown sugar till well coated. Brown on all sides under a broiler, or held on a skewer over a flame, until the sugar is nicely caramelized. Cut in quarters, drop it in a saucepan with the port, cover tightly and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Add half the remaining cognac just before pouring into mugs. Float a tablespoon of cognac on top of each mug, light and serve to “oohs” and “aahs.”

There are probably as many recipes for mulled wines as there are places that get cold. The most unusual I’ve seen comes from Wular Lake in the old British Indian state of Kashmir, a long disputed area between India, Tibet, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It sounds quite odd, and is quite delicious.


2 bottles of red burgundy
2 limes, cut in thin slices and seeded
½ banana, sliced
2 cinnamon sticks
12 cloves
6 allspice berries
1 cup dark rum
½ cup brown sugar
1 cup club soda

Tie the slices of fruit together with the spices in a small cheesecloth bag or wrap. Put with the wine in a large pot, cover and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 8-9 minutes, but not longer or the banana will get pulpy and cloud the drink. Remove the cheesecloth package and discard. Add the rum and sugar and stir to dissolve. Top off with the club soda and serve immediately while still foaming. Garnish, if you like, with a curl of lime peel.

Without question, if you whip up a truly delightful holiday punch, your friends will beg for your recipes. So what if they normally drink vodka-tonics throughout? It’s the holiday season, and for no other reason we should come together around the punch bowl and try something arguably seasonal and tasty!

Q San Francisco magazine premiered in late 1995 as a ultra-slick, ultra-hip gay lifestyle magazine targeted primarily for the San Francisco community. It was launched by my friends Don Tuthill and Robert Adams, respectively the publisher and editor-in-chief, who had owned and run Genre magazine for several years prior. They asked me to come along as the food and wine geek, umm, editor, for this venture as well. In order to devote their time to Passport magazine, their newest venture, they ceased publication of QSF in early 2003.


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