On the Texas Coast, Mardi Gras always packs the perfect punch
Mardi Gras is not for tea sippers. Does any sane person fight, claw and crawl to claim possession of a cheap plastic necklace in a state of sobriety?
One of Houston’s more colorful social figures, whose Nassau Bay yacht was once well known for the carnival parties she hosted there, quietly shared her perfect Mardi Gras cocktail recipe a few years before she died.
“It’s alcohol and whatever else needs pouring out.” And you read it first here.
Truth be told, the days leading up to Fat Tuesday, the last night to indulge in whatever passion, habit, food or beverage one has chosen to give up for Lent, always seem to involve a lot of imbibing of alcohol. One might surmise many, many, many have chosen this to be the object of their sacrifice for the 40-plus days until Easter — unless one notes that many, many, many of those rowdy partyers don’t even observe Lent.
So, if one must drink on Fat Tuesday, just what is the perfect Mardi Gras drink? Yes, the happy socialite did have the basics.
“Punch and Mardi Gras just naturally go together,” said Kyle Taylor, a bar manager at Olympia The Grill at Pier 21 in Galveston.
Taylor creates a punch for the party every year.
“The parades and crowds are all right here, and punch is something you can put in a big cup and walk around,” Taylor said. “It’s not too strong, so you drink it all afternoon. It’s refreshing. Not filling.”
Taylor’s punch ingredients usually include fresh fruit like kiwi, strawberries or pineapple, along with a couple of kinds of rum.
“Our secret ingredient that’s not really so secret is Champagne,” Taylor said. “It goes really nice and complements the rum.”
Taylor likes to have his punch creations reflect the Mardi Gras colors.
Of course, punch makes sense for the occasion. Mardi Gras is less about three fingers of Scotch than it is two fists of booze. One large bowl takes care of a lot of people who aren’t there to sip and discuss the delicate hint of spices on the palate.
Best of all, punch is a wild child in the cocktail world, which makes it even more suitable for Mardi Gras. There are few limits on ingredients, flavor or color.
It’s that kind of creativity that shines at many a bar, and there’s probably no finer example than Yaga’s Café, 2314 Strand in Galveston’s downtown. Each year, around Mardi Gras time, the popular dining and drinking spot joins up with a liquor sponsor and creates a punch for the party.
“It depends on who we’re partnering up with, but we usually come up with something to tailor up our hurricanes and feature new rums,” said Homer Garcia, general manager at Yaga’s.
Last year, the featured punch included different rums, juice, grenadine and bitters — fulfilling the punch five-point requirement of balancing strong, weak, bitter, sweet and sour. No one was probably counting.
Five is a key component for a punch. The word “punch” was borrowed from the Sanskrit spoken in India by English sailors with the British East India Company in the early 1600s. It literally means “five,” which was the number of ingredients in the original drink sailors concocted. As it spread through Europe, wine or brandy replaced the original spirits, but as trade with the Caribbean increased, punch more and more included rum, still the most popular additive along the Gulf Coast.
Elaborate punch bowls became the fashion in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Our own founding fathers were said to have emptied four score and more of them after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Queen Victoria, unfortunately a party pooper of great influence, had a dim view of drinking alcohol, and, wouldn’t you know it, her reign went on forever. Punch remained popular, but, well, lost its punch.
And then, as mixologists grew in number during the last decade, the old art of punch-making got a new look. Punch drinks found new popularity, especially in New York and California. Just last year, The Punch House opened in Chicago.
One misconception about punch is that it must be served in a bowl. In truth, a punch is really a drink which can be fixed for one serving. Here on the Gulf, for example, the most famous punch is the hurricane, created at Pat O’Brien’s in New Orleans in an attempt to get rid of an overstock of cheap rum. The rest is history.
What makes a punch is the five ingredients that bring in the sweetener, the strong spirit, the weaker or taming spirit, a seasoning element and the required citrus, be it juice or actual chopped fruit.
“I’d say it has to have a minimum of five ingredients to be called a punch,” said Mike Hernandez, beverage manager at Moody Gardens Hotel, Spa & Convention Center.
Hernandez works with his liquor suppliers to come up with a punch for guests.
“The punch really goes over well, and people do expect there to be a punch during Mardi Gras,” Hernandez said. “We feature it in our lobby bar every year.”
Unlike the other bars, which all serve their punch drinks in modified hurricane glasses, Moody Gardens Hotel on occasion recruits the familiar bowl.
“It depends on how busy we are, but when we know we are really full and there are going to be a lot of people, we make it up in 5-gallon batches,” Hernandez said.
By the bowl or by the glass, punch is as much a part of Mardi Gras as plastic beads, parades and bizarre costumes. Maybe even more so. Without the punch the rest wouldn’t seem perfectly logical.
1 1/2 ounces Cruzan Gold Rum
1 1/2 ounces of Caliche White Rum
2 ounces of orange juice
4 ounces of pineapple juice
1/2 ounce grenadine
Sprinkle of nutmeg
Sprinkle of bitters
Pour all the ingredients over ice and shake well. Garnish with fresh fruit.
– Recipe courtesy of Yaga’s Café, 2314 Strand in Galveston’s downtown