Bay of Swigs

I suppose it was tough luck on that winter night in 1988 when three punches, which I never even ordered, made me $150 richer.

I was tending bar at the legendary Bum Steer when a fight broke out, and as my employee manual directed me to do, I broke it up. It was then that I learned about the bar’s “lucky punch” policy, which paid employees $50 for every hit they took in restoring order to the scene.

Having been the recipient of three hard ones in that melee, I ended my shift with an extra $150 in my tip jar, courtesy of the Steer’s code of compassion.

Thankfully there’s a different kind of punch that’s trending at bars today, and what a difference an “s” makes.

Punsch, a liqueur that originated in 18th Century Sweden, is suddenly relevant again as evidenced by its presence in many of Southern Arizona’s cocktail bars. Swedish Punsch can be distilled from fermented coconut flower sap, rice, fruits, or sugar cane and introduces a unique flavor profile to a range of cocktails.

Local barman Robert Gillies’ fascination with the spirit began nearly 10 years ago when he started reading vintage cocktail books, an interest which intensified when he considered his family’s lineage.

“With Scandinavian roots, I’ve had quite the affinity for Swedish Punsch and the way it lends itself to cocktails,” said Gillies, bar manager at the Tough Luck Club, 101 E. Pennington Street. “My grandmother was Danish, which I guess makes it a family thing.”

Gillies describes the flavor of punsch as “rich and toffee like, with notes of smoke and molasses.” He said the liqueur works well with virtually any anchor spirit, from vodka to whiskey, and effectively ties together the flavors in many cocktails.

“It definitely plays well with others,” he said. 

Gillies uses Swedish Punsch is his Bay of Swigs, a libation that made its debut in the bar’s second anniversary cocktail book last month. Its foundation is overproof tequila and overproof rum, with precise hits of ginger, smoked lychee honey, grapefruit and lime juices, and the punsch.

He garnishes the cocktail with a grain alcohol-soaked lychee fruit shell that he sets on fire as it’s being served.

“It’s basically a rip-off of the Hurricane,” he said, “with agave from the tequila and some lime to bring in acidity to balance out the grapefruit.”

Gillies tells me that the Bay of Swigs is part of the “tragic, heartbreak, and disaster themes” that the new menu represents at the Tough Luck Club, and a sort of “pessimistic-poking-fun-at-ourselves approach that bridges a little negativity with a little bit of fun.”

In addition to the Bay of Swigs, the anniversary menu features selections that include the Sulk on the Beach, the Sum of all Beers and the Feel the Darkness. 

Swedish Punsch is making appearances at other cocktail bars across town as well.

The Sunset Limited at the Owls Club features the punsch with bourbon and Madeira wine, the Tangier Nights at Scott and Co. stirs it in with Cognac and Crème de Menthe, and the Hegemon at the Coronet adds it to Whiskey del Bac, grenadine, Angostura bitters and Gran Classico bitters.

There were some historic moments in Sweden in 1733, from the successful Swedish East India Company’s trade expedition to China to the country’s final criminal execution by way of the breaking wheel.

But it’s the discovery of punsch that year that I personally rank as most momentous.

Lucky us. 

Contact Matt Russell, whose day job is CEO of Russell Public Communications, at Russell is also the host of “On the Menu Live” that airs 5 to 6 p.m. Saturdays on KQTH 104.1 FM, as well as the host of the Friday Weekend Watch segment on the “Buckmaster Show” on KVOI 1030 AM.