Ring in the Holidays with Punch

December spirits

from Corpse Reviver in Durham
The Mulled & Barreled Punch at Corpse Reviver in Durham is served by the bowl (Corpse Reviver)

By Matthew Lardie

It’s the holiday season and, many of us are choosing to gather with friends and family again in what feels like the first time in ages. Maybe it’s a small dinner out with those remote coworkers you haven’t seen in a year, or a neighborhood potluck, or Aunt Linda’s annual White Elephant Gift Exchange Holiday Bonanza. I used to get exhausted by all the holiday hullabaloo, social obligations, and nights out, but this year I am leaning hard into the celebratory mood for a number of reasons. Chief amongst them is punch.

Yes, punch. If you ask me, punch is a year-round treat, but now during the festive season is where it truly shines. I remember watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation as a kid (and also, honestly, yesterday) and being fascinated by the Griswold’s punch bowl full of eggnog and those little moose glasses. Punch to me said “party”. It was both accessible and fancy at the same time. In college it wasn’t truly a party without a tub (either plastic or a literal tub) full of jungle juice, a concoction that has no real recipe and probably should be illegal.

These days I love when restaurants and bars put punches on their menu, whether served individually or as a group drink, bowl and all. Punch brings people together, like the cocktail equivalent of gathering around a fondue pot or a Korean barbecue grill. Punches are fun, and they allow a host or hostess to show off some cocktail prowess without having to splurge on expensive ingredients. Hell, punches are part of our history.

Since the colonial days, whenever a bunch of Carolinians got together for a celebration, they mixed up a batch of punch for the occasion. At Husk in Charleston, a punch inspired by a 19th century militia unit’s recipe has become one of the most iconic cocktails on their menu. The Charleston Light Dragoon Punch is made with Barbados rum, peach brandy, black tea, lemon juice, and raw sugar. “Whether you need to atone for a social faux pas,”Jed Portman observed about Light Dragoon Punch in Serious Eats, “or want to entertain your guests in old Charleston style, it will be a welcome presence in a punch bowl this holiday season.”

Single-serve versions of classic punches are menu regulars at Husk Bar in Charleston
Single-serve versions of classic punches are menu regulars at Husk Bar in Charleston

One key to punches is that the ingredients are almost infinitely scalable — they can be made for one or for 100. Sure you can make a bowl of gin and tonics for a crowd, but that doesn’t make it a punch. True punches are set apart from other cocktails in that they should have four or five distinct elements — sweet (sugar, honey, etc), citrus/sour, bitter (spices or actual bitters), weak (soda, juice, tea), and finally, strong (alcoholic). The best punch recipes, in my mind, are measured in parts, allowing the punch maker the ability to make as little or as much punch the situation requires.

MJ Weber, the bar manager at Durham Distillery’s Corpse Reviver Bar & Lounge, is equally as enamored with punches. Growing up in an immigrant family, MJ wasn’t subjected to the same puritanical taboos around alcohol that many other American families have, and she was exposed to a wide world of spirits from a young age. She told me about the year she made her first punch.

“My father was a big gin drinker,” she recalled, “so I went out, bought a thrifted punch bowl, and made a cranberry and thyme shrub, lemon, soda water and—ironically enough—a bottle of Conniption Navy Strength. That was the first holiday punch I had ever made and it was lovely to actually be able to enjoy it throughout the Christmas Day.”

This year MJ put Mulled & Barreled Punch on the menu at Corpse Reviver. Made with Four Roses bourbon, mulled wine, and lemon, it’s served in a big punch bowl with enough for four to eight people—the perfect excuse to grab a bunch of friends and head over to Corpse Reviver!

Back down in Charleston at Vivian Howard’s Lenoir, General Manager Jennifer Bresnahan is also a big punch fan. “Punches are a great option for every bar as they can be made in advance, quick to assemble (top with soda), and only get better with time as the flavors are allowed to meld as they sit,” she says. “They are great crowd pleasers as they have a little something for everyone.”

Currently on the menu at Lenoir is a punch-inspired drink called The Mothervine. Bresnahan explains, “We got inspiration from Vivian’s recipe for mulled muscadines from Deep Run Roots. We combined the mulled muscadines with Byrrh, rosemary agave, gin and soda water. This punch has a combination of flavors with the tartness from muscadines and some of the hard spices and citrus in the mulling process and Byrrh to be a great fall cocktail that is refreshing without being super herbal or floral.”

Triangle food influencer Joe Schwartz also happens to be the bar guy at beloved Durham restaurant The Federal. I reached out to him to ask him about punches, and not only does he share my love of them, he also went ahead and created a custom punch recipe just for The Southeastern Dispatch!

“For me the holidays are about gathering with family and chosen family with a spirited drink in hand,” Schawrtz says. “A punch serves as a centerpiece and allows everyone, even the host, to join in the shared experience of something that’s certainly nice and oftentimes a little bit naughty.”

Schawrtz’s holiday punch is a true Carolina classic, made with bourbon and soda from North Carolina’s own Cheerwine, which has released a limited edition punch version of their iconic cherry-flavored soda. “The holidays are universal, but there’s something innately special about holidays in the south,” he explains. “This punch celebrates that with a limited edition soda crafted in Salisbury, NC, bourbon pronounced with a drawl, and a mix of fruit, spices and herbs that induce care-free caroling in the Carolinas.”

So this year whether you gather at home with family or out at a bar with friends, consider making punch part of your celebration. Whether served up in a single glass or in a big communal bowl, punch is a drink that insists on conviviality and comradeship. After this long year, we could all use a bit more of that. Cheers, and happy holidays!

Southeastern Dispatch Holiday Cheerwine Punch

Created by Joe Schwartz of The Federal


  • Two liters Limited Edition Holiday Cheerwine Punch (sub regular Cheerwine if not available)
  • One bottle (750 ml) bourbon, your choice (Joe uses Evan Williams Bottled in Bond. If you like your drinks less “booze-forward” use 2/3 a bottle to start and then add more to taste.)
  • Six cinnamon sticks
  • Half a handful of whole cloves and/or allspice
  • Three or four fresh pineapple rings
  • Four to six sprigs of rosemary
  • One cup of maraschino cherries


  1. Add all ingredients to a large punch bowl and stir. Allow half an hour for the flavors to marry and the spices and fruit to infuse. The longer you wait to serve, the better.
  2. Add ice. If you want to be fancy, add water to a Bundt cake pan or other cake mold and freeze. Then run under warm water and slide the molded ice into the bowl; it’s a real showstopper.

About the Author

Matthew Lardie

Matt Lardie is a food, beverage, and lifestyle writer. Born and raised in New England, he has been exploring and eating his way through the Carolinas since 2008. He has been published in Our State Magazine, Wine Enthusiast, Apartment Therapy, Eater Carolinas, The Kitchn, Durham Magazine, and more. His first book, Unique Eats and Eateries: North Carolina, is due to be published in the fall of 2022. He lives in Durham, NC.