I can’t explain why I find it so satisfying, but in It’s a Wonderful Life, the grand holiday weeper that’s near-inescapable at this time of year, there’s a brief scene in a rough kind of barroom as Clarence the angel and Jimmy Stewart / George stop in for something to help them warm up:
CLARENCE: I was just thinking . . . It’s been so long since I . . .
NICK (impatient): Look, mister, I’m standing here waiting for you to make up your mind.
CLARENCE (appreciatively): That’s a good man. I was just thinking of a flaming rum punch. No, it’s not cold enough for that. Not nearly cold enough . . . Wait a minute . . . wait a minute . . . I got it. Mulled wine, heavy on the cinnamon and light on the cloves. Off with you, me lad, and be lively!
NICK: Hey, look mister, we serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast. And we don’t need any characters around to give the joint atmosphere. Is that clear? Or do I have to slip you my left for a convincer?
CLARENCE (to George): What’s he talking about?
GEORGE (soothingly): Nick — Nick, just give him the same as mine. He’s okay.
Sure, laugh at the little angel guy with his old-timey ways and his thirst for hot spiced hooch — but if you’re spending your holiday party with a dry martini in your hand, you’re missing out on something. (Not that I have anything against dry martinis, of course — far from it — but it’s Christmas, for Chrissake…)
There’s something about the holidays that makes you reach for things you’d probably avoid the rest of the year — eggnog, gluhwein, tepid crab puffs that have been sitting on the buffet table for three hours. This holiday, add one more item to the list: a mugful of something from a BIG FLAMING BOWL OF BOOZE.
Flamed drinks aren’t the sole province of Jaeger-soaked frat-boys tossing back Irish Car Bombs: burning liquor has a heritage that includes the tiki (like Flaming Coffee Grog), the New Orleans (the Cafe Brulot — damn, gotta do that one sometime) and the uber-classic (the Blue Blazer). On Christmas, a flaming punch has extra appeal — it looks pretty festive among all the holiday trappings; it gives you something to chat about while you’re tippling under the mistletoe; it perfumes the air with the Christmasey smell of oranges and spice; and, a ladle in your hand full of something burning sends a not-so-subtle message to your sister’s husband that it just might be time to shut…the fuck…up.
This recipe comes from Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts, from 1949:
Christmas Rum Punch
- 6 oranges
- 1/2 gallon sweet cider
- 1 bottle Jamaica rum, bestest [I’ve used Myers and Appleton V/X with decent results; I’d bet it would also work well with a Barbados rum, or maybe even Bacardi 8. Nothing too posh, though — save that for fortifying yourself to hear your uncle’s advice on franchise opportunities.]
- Sugar to taste
- Whole cloves
- Ground cinnamon and nutmeg
Stick the oranges full of cloves and bake them in the oven until they soften [20-30 minutes at 350 should do the trick]. Place oranges in the punch bowl, pour over them the rum and granulated sugar to taste. Set fire to rum and in a few minutes [ed note: make that seconds; see above] add the cider slowly to extinguish the flame. Stir in cinnamon and nutmeg, and keep the mixture hot.
I’ve made this punch the past two years, with good results. It’s incredibly easy to make — a bonus when you’ve accidentally committed yourself to make appetizers, sides, dessert and drinks for 12, and you started on the Tom & Jerry’s early. Experience says to make sure you have a sturdy punch bowl, preferably silver — unless your goal is to create an unforgettable holiday memory by assassinating your mother-in-law’s Waterford. Warm everything up beforehand, too; in addition to the obvious benefits, warm rum lights easier than cold. Also, be prepared with the cider; while the flames make the spices flare and pop nicely, letting the cloves burn too long will leave ashes in your drink and make your house smell like you’ve invited over the audience from a Cure concert. And experiment with your forms of sugar (go easy, though) — a few cubes of Demerara, strategically placed, will give a nice caramel touch to the punch. Finally, should you have any pimento dram on hand, a modest slug mixed in with the punch gives it an extra holiday kick.
So cue up Nat King Cole, put on your fuzzy reindeer sweater and smile like you mean it. With a couple of these boozy holiday bracers in you, it might just seem like the most wonderful time of the year.
Need more holiday cheer? Head on over to The Spirit World, where our good host Brenda is taking care of this round of Mixology Monday, themed Drinks for a Festive Occasion.
And, of course…happy holidays.