When life gives you lemons, add finesse to your festive fizz with oleo saccharum
The holiday season cries out for festive bubbles, for brunch-time mimosas and kir royales, for corks flying at midnight, for French 75s and Champagne cocktails just about any time.
But of all the bubbly concoctions, there is no more festive fizz than a grand Champagne punch.
A great, big, flowing bowl full of bubbles is both elegant and a little bit louche – a welcoming drink that tells your guests that it’s time to kick up their fancy heels and party in style.
When it comes to making punch, think of it as an oversized cocktail – a French 75 writ large, for instance – and you can’t go far wrong. The trick is to make the base ahead of time and keep everything as well chilled as possible. Just before your guests arrive, pour the base in the bowl, add ice, top with bubble, and you’re ready to celebrate.
The kind of sparkling wine you use makes a difference – you want a fairly neutral wine, nothing too sweet or fruity, and one with a crisp, firm mousse that will stay fizzy for several hours.
Spanish cavas are a good, affordable choice, but almost any traditional-method sparkler will work. Avoid prosecco and other frizzante-style wines, though, as their bubbles tend to go flat too quickly.
The other secret to making a punch that is not just good but a true knockout is a little-known ingredient called oleo saccharum.
The word itself is Latin for oil (oleo) and sugar (saccharum) – think of it as sugared oil, although the oil here is the essential oil from lemon peels. (Orange and grapefruit peels work, too.)
It was traditionally used by 19th-century bartenders to add both sweetness and citrus flavour to cocktails; indeed, the legendary Jerry Thomas called it the “ambrosial essence of the lemon.”
Unlike lemon juice, which has a simple sweet-tart flavour profile, citrus oils are deep, nuanced and complexly layered: a little bitter, a little floral, even slightly spicy.
As David Wondrich writes in his excellent 2010 book Punch, “The lemon oil adds a fragrance and depth that makes the difference between a good Punch and a great one.”
Sadly, oleo saccharum is not something you can pick up at your local supermarket. It’s something you need to make yourself, and while it isn’t difficult, it does take a little effort.
Wondrich recommends muddling lemon peels with two ounces of sugar per lemon, then letting the mixture sit for at least half an hour in a warm place while the oils are extracted.
Jeffrey Morgenthaler, the award-winning Portland bartender and author of The Bar Book, has an easier method – mixing the sugar and peels together then placing the mixture in a vacuum sealer bag, sealing it, and letting it sit for up to 24 hours or until the sugar dissolves.
Sounds easy, right? Unfortunately, neither method is completely foolproof. For one thing, there’s usually a fair bit of sugary sludge that isn’t absorbed by the oils; for another, straining the oil off the lemon peels is messy and wasteful.
Grant Sceney, creative beverage director at the Fairmont Pacific Rim and 2014’s fourth-place finisher at Diageo World Class, has a solution to that. After you follow one of the processes above, he suggests mixing the oil, sugar and peels with a little bit of water, heating it until the sugar is fully dissolved, then straining off the peels. This, it turns out, is hugely effective.
In any case, oleo saccharum is your secret weapon for taking your festive fizzes from fine to fantastic.
—by Joanne Sasvari