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A cocktail needs to be more than the sum of its parts. If you wanted to drink Scotch, you'd drink Scotch. If you wanted to drink fruit juice, or fortified wine, or an herbal liqueur, you'd get a decent version and drink those.
A really good cocktail offers a special alchemy, transforming its disparate elements into one new, delicious thing. Maybe you can tell there's fruit in there. Maybe you notice the spice. Maybe you can rule out some spirits to guide you toward the base. But mostly what you taste is that charming, unfamiliar harmony of flavors.
As I went through the process of testing different versions of this punch, which was created by Matthew McKinley Campbell of A Mano in San Francisco, everyone I served it to was a little mystified. Most couldn't quite put a finger on the whisky or the oxidative sherry in the mix. There was something malty and caramel-laced and a little nutty there, but it melded into the whole. Some sniffed out the tart cranberry and lemon, and one even acted not-too-surprised when I explained that it was spiced with Angostura and Becherovka, an herbal, cinnamon-y digestif from the Czech Republic. He'd had some in a drink at a bar the week before.
But while they couldn't identify its separate elements, they couldn't help but love it, and the batch disappeared far before the end of the party. Which is to say, you may want to make a double batch.
If you're the sort of person who likes to be organized in advance, you'll want to gather your ingredients and your serving vessels ahead. Start with a big punch bowl (or a salad bowl that's not easily stained with red liquids), plus a cake pan or tupperware that fits inside it. That'll be what you use for your ice block; fill it with water (filtered if you usually drink filtered water) a day or two before and freeze.
You'll also need to hit up the liquor store for blended Scotch, nutty oloroso sherry, and Becherovka. I know, I know, it's a pain to add another bottle to your booze collection, but Becherovka is showing up in cocktails all around the country for a reason: It's really, really delicious. It tastes like everything holiday wrapped into one, but especially freshly made gingerbread and baked apples with cinnamon. What you have left over can be used to spike cider, tea, eggnog, or cocoa. You won't regret owning it.
While Scotch subtly provides the malty backbone of the drink, its counterbalance is super-tart unsweetened cranberry juice. You don't want a cran-anything blend here—just the straight stuff. Campbell does a fancy move where he blends it with whole cranberries then strains the whole mix, which yields added tannin and brighter color, but I prefer to skip that step in the interest of less overall fuss. The punch doesn't suffer.
You'll also be stirring some hot water into a jar of marmalade. This is to thin out the preserves, so that they doesn't show up chunky in your punch bowl. If you prefer a pristine punch, you can blend the water and marmalade together with an immersion blender; I don't mind the citrus swaths in my drink, so I just use a regular ol' spoon.
Most of the punch can be prepared a day ahead: Batch all the liquids excluding citrus and Angostura bitters, seal completely, and let it chill in the fridge while you do other things. When you're ready to go, you'll add in fresh orange and lemon juice to further brighten the drink, a little Angostura to amp up the spice, and a pinch of salt to round off the bitter edges. Stir and add to your pretty punch bowl with your big fancy ice, and serve it up with a ladle.
Be sure to snag a glass for yourself: even if you're not trying to unravel the mystery ingredients, it's a drink that deserves to be savored.
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