When it comes to cocktails, bigger is better and way more social
My early memories of punch are from college parties—party drinks cobbled together from curious arrays of cheap spirits mixed with saccharine juices and sodas and ladled from whatever vessel was large enough to quench the crowd. A mixing bowl in the best of times, a plastic trash can in the worst.
Nevertheless, we’d gather around, clink glasses and share stories over the ever-flowing bowl.
Convivial cocktails like these are appearing across Canada. Served in punch bowls, pitchers, teapots or trays, these drinks are far more craft-inclined than my college days—they’re great and grand, beckoning drinkers to bring friends and sit shoulder to shoulder.
“Just like sharing a bottle of wine, sharing cocktails are all about unifying a group’s experience,” says Aleksandr Russell, bar manager at Toronto’s MIMI Chinese. “Food and drink bring a sense of community when shared.”
“Group cocktails provide conversation topics for guests,” says Joshua Cartwright, bar manager at MARKED Restaurant in Toronto. “And it’s a way for us to express big ideas in a way that’s more visually striking than a single glass.”
Cartwright’s Costa Colada is a milk punch poured through a nitrogen-infused tap and presented tableside in a decanter. Trapped in Time is an herb, citrus and tea infusion, served in an oversized tea tower to allow the flavours to integrate in front of the guest. “Each sip will be slightly different than the sip that came before,” says Cartwright. “The last sip will be drastically different than the first.”
Bitter Melon in Toronto makes a rum-and-sake drink for two from lavender peach tea, tonka bean and port. Bar St. Lo pours Martinis out of a carafe. The Raven Room in Whistler has clever punch bowls, including the blue-hued You’re the One: a rum-based beverage spiked with curaçao (blue, naturally), coconut and pineapple.
At MIMI Chinese, Russell and team suggest guests start their meal with the Tea Ceremony, a vibrant pink vodka drink served out of a sleek black teapot. “We use black wolfberry to impart colour, jasmine tea for a floral element, and Strega and Lillet Blanc for an herbal finish. We clarify it with coconut milk and serve it on hand-carved ice to let that clarity shine through.”
At Dasha, head bartender Polina Snitkova has a full menu of big drinks: the Crouching Panda with gin, Asian pear, calpico and soda; Hacienda Dreams with sake, tequila, yellow chartreuse, and hibiscus; and a boozed-up take on a Melona popsicle, all served in punch bowls.
Large-format drinks aren’t a new concept. The earliest iterations date back to the 1600s, when seafaring merchants would sip large batches of punch made with funky spirits (like arak and Jamaican rum), teas collected at port and citrus to ward off scurvy.
What brought big cocktails back? Perhaps the pandemic—sharing a drink after isolation is the liquid version of a hug. “Punches or large format cocktails are the drink equivalent of breaking bread,” says Goodfellow. “Sipping the same cocktail increases connection—people gather around the punch bowl, use it as a conversation ice breaker.”
“We were making huge volumes of sharing cocktails in 2022,” says Russell. “I think people were excited to be able to do things together and share experiences outside of a Zoom call.”
Large-format and batched drinks are also a blessing for both bartenders and home hosts. “Sharing cocktails are much easier to execute,” says Goodfellow. “Plus, the ability to prep in advance frees up the host to focus their time on mingling and entertaining rather than mixing drinks.”
If you are making your own punch, Russell suggests starting easy: “Vodka or white rum are solid foundations for flavour. Build off that with crowd-pleasing ingredients: teas or tisanes, berries, citrus, vanilla, etc., then expand on them with herbal liqueurs and aromatized wines. But add wisely—like a cocktail for one, too many ingredients will muddy the flavour.”
Snitkova recommends focusing on quality. “Our syrups and cordials are made from scratch in-house,” she says. “When it comes to spirits, we don’t shy away from using premium spirits like Grey Goose Pear, Bacardi Ocho or Briottet liqueur.” And, don’t skimp on the garnish. “We love to garnish them beautifully so they are Instagram ready—this isn’t your school-dance punch bowl!”
If you’re pouring easy drinks like Old Fashioneds or Negronis, Goodfellow will amp up the presentation to elevate the drink. “Celery ribbons, cucumber nests, banana dolphins or pineapple carpaccio—these are easy to make and can be prepared earlier on the day of the event to stay fresh,” says Goodfellow. “They’re playful additions guests can just plop in their glass.”
“The wow factor is important,” Cartwright notes. “You aren’t just ordering a pitcher of beer for you and your friends. You’re sharing an experience and the presentation should reinforce that.”
Make these sharing cocktails at home:
—by Kate Dingwall