"Modern usage has considerably altered the social habits in vogue with our forefathers in both eating and drinking," wrote William Terrington in Cooling Cups and Other Dainty Drinks, published in 1869. Yet the quote could very well apply to any almost any era. Any era but ours, that is.
In our era, bartenders and historians are busily unearthing recipes, resuscitating extinct ingredients and generally combing the past for the key to new fads in drinking. While this research can be full of confusing information, it can also be full of discovery.
Over the past few years, punches have made their way back to the table, like a cocktail version of bottle service. These punches are quicker to serve per person and last longer than single serving drinks. They're also much more social. Although I'd argue that all cocktails presuppose an innate sociality—after all, the dipsomaniac sticks with straight alcohol, right?—punches are outwardly social, more pep rally than pep talk.
Henry William Thomas, in 1926's The Life and Times of Henry William Thomas, writes, "Baccanalian in its traditions Cup survived to our day as a symbol of relaxation and refreshment."
Yet punches aren't the only communal drinks worth reviving. Search through old recipes books and you'll find something called "cups." (The Pimm's Cup is perhaps the most well known). What's the difference between a punch and cup? This is tricky. David Embury in The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (1948) writes that punches and cups are "pretty much synonymous." Yet there do seem to be subtle distinctions.
According to A.S. Crockett in The Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book, a cup is "a beverage made with wine, generally iced, and with flavoring herbs and fruits. In olden times, vegetables were also included, particularly cucumbers." This is more or less true, but then cups sometimes include whiskey, brandy, and beer and also can be served hot. Perhaps more to the point, cups are often associated with ancient rites and rituals.
Henry William Thomas, in 1926's The Life and Times of Henry William Thomas, writes, "Baccanalian in its traditions Cup survived to our day as a symbol of relaxation and refreshment after a season of harvest, a day perhaps of work or sport, when fruits and wine gave pleasure to the eye and inspiration to the soul."
I'd like to suggest that we might distinguish punches from cups by this simple definition: cups are compounded drinks (containing multiple ingredients), generally with wine or beer at the base, served at a banquet or feast and decorated with fruit and herbs such as borage and lemon verbena. They are served from pitchers or other large vessels.
This is a shade different than punches, although there is much crossover. To begin getting "in your cups," as the old phrase goes, try the famous Claret Cup. The most basic recipe is with a Claret (a Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend from Bordeaux), sugar, and sparkling mineral water. It's like instant sangria. Add sherry, maraschino liqueur and cherry brandy, or even ginger beer. Make sure you decorate it with edible flowers, herbs, or cucumbers, but don't go too far as it will taste too vegetal or herby.
Peruse Terrington's Cooling Cups and Other Dainty Drinks for more ideas. Otherwise, here's a recipe for a Pimm's Cup, which is served in individual portions or can be batched in larger portions (CocktailDB.com has a serving scaling option in their database). I suggest "super-sizing" it on a Sunday afternoon and inviting some friends over to take part in this ancient ritual.