Sunday, February 14, 2010

Rum and Punch: Two Trends for 2010

I was at an industry event for the Guatemalan rum Zacapa, talking over the cocktail scene with a couple collegues. We were discussing how it seemed that, after gin and absinthe and tequila had all recently gotten their moment in the spotlight, it now appeared to be rum's turn. "Yeah," said one man, "I wonder what will be next?" We thought for a moment. "Nothing," another finally said. "Rum's it. It's last. It's the last major liquor category to be rediscovered."

Late last year, the New York Times ran a big feature story on how rum had come of age in America, and was being newly rediscovered by U.S. drinkers and drink makers. The piece focused mainly on west coast places like Martin Cate's Smuggler's Cove in San Francisco and Audrey Saunder's Tar Pit in Los Angeles. But the article's looking pretty prophetic as far as New York is concerned. 2010 is not even two months old and we have already learned that, before spring is over, we well see Painkiller, a new tiki-rum place on the Lower East Side run by Richard Boccato and Giuseppe Gonzalez of Dutch Kills fame; and, as part of the new East Village Cuban restaurant Cienfuegos, two rum bars overseen by mixologist Charlotte Voisey. No longer can anyone say, "Why isn't there a decent rum bar in New York?"

To my mind, part of this gravitation toward rum is an either intentional or subconscious desire to chill out a bit. The cocktail scene can get rather arch sometimes, with it's insistence on the right way of doing things, its ingredient and behavior snobbery and its sometime rococo new cocktail creations. Rum is all about relaxing and taking it easy.

Both of these new bars also seem to tangentially embrace what I feel is another dawning trend of 2010: Punch. Now, I know that a lot of cocktail geeks out there will balk at that statement, saying "Punch was so 2008." True, Death & Co. and Clover Club have been doing punches for a couple years now in New York, and Prime Meats serves a different punch by the glass every day. But the punch thing never really took hold. It was an isolated, intermittent side show, found only in the most fanatical corners of cocktaildom.

This year may change that. One of the rum bars at Cienfuegos will focus on rum punch. And Painkiller is going to have a Scorpion Bowl menu. That would all be fine and good, but the real clincher to this being a punch year is the arrival of David Wondrich's new book on the matter. Wondrich created quite a stir with his last opus, "Imbibe!," basically an exhaustive history of cocktails in 19th-century America. Fans will be waiting anxiously for his next volume. (I don't know what the title is yet, but I'm guessing, maybe, "Punch!").

Wondrich recently gave a little preview on what the book will contain during a well-attended lecture at Pegu Club on Jan. 25. He had just turned in his manuscript two days beforehand.  He talked about the history of the brimming bowl, and made a few sample punches (there's one below), including one made with ambergris, which anyone who has read "Moby Dick" knows is a once-treasured byproduct of sperm whales. Though something in me tells me that punch will be a harder sell to the general public than individual classic cocktails were (it's labor intensive, requires special equipment, and you need to lay out a fair amount of money to make a good-sized bowl), I'm still betting that the book will inspire plenty of bars to start offering punch.

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