Party Like It's 1799: The Rienzi Punch Party

When I was first approached with the opportunity to cover the MFAH's second annual punch party, I had my doubts about the quality of the libations. As a card-carrying Victorianist, I'm pretty much professionally obligated to scoff at the so-called merits of other historical eras in favor of promoting the supremacy of nineteenth-century culture.

So maybe the eighteenth century produced some decent poetry. The French Revolution was certainly helpful. Also, the founding of our country. But good drinks? I thought not.

Oh, how deliciously wrong I was! And I have the MFAH and Mongoose versus Cobra to thank for this epiphany.

The former institution provided the lovely setting that is Rienzi; the latter establishment proffered refreshments: four different punches with unique notes of various fruits, spices, plants and liquors. The St. Charles Punch, served in the elegant drawing room adjoining the library, was a thick concoction of port, cognac, sugar and lemon juice. Although the citrus added a slight piquant element, this punch is undeniably a winter brew, probably best enjoyed close to a booming hearth.

On the terrace were stations serving two appropriately lighter punches. Combining rum, lime juice, lemons, simple syrup and Angostura bitters, the Smith and Cross might have been cloyingly sweet had not a terrific undercurrent of bold spice thanks to the Jamaican Rum tempered the sugar. Still a bit too rich for summer, but just about perfect for October in Texas. The Rooster Punch was crisp, fruity and more New England autumnal, interweaving bourbon and sherry.

Tucked away in a small overhang next to the larger ballroom, the fourth station quietly served "Gin Punch," a deceptively simple name for a mixture that had the most sophisticated flavor of all the libations on offer that evening. Such fragrance and depth of taste can in part be attributed to its diverse ingredients: oranges, lemons, limes, strawberries, pineapple, gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, orgeat syrup, crème de framboise, water and sparkling wine. It's difficult to balance so many competing elements in a single four-ounce pour of punch, but the mixologists at Mongoose versus Cobra did a remarkably good job of securing an even flavor that nevertheless highlighted individual ingredients at a given sip.

Rienzi has been called the hidden jewel of Houston, and I have to agree with that description, given its stunning but not over-visited collection of objets d'art and manicured grounds. And while such an ornate setting might otherwise inspire excessive formality, the punch party was anything but stiff. The string quartet played Bruno Mars, not Bach, and the crowd was merry and bright. I was lucky enough to be joined by friends and colleagues from Rice University, and we had as much fun dissecting Hogarth paintings as we did noshing on passed bites of fried macaroni and cheese and shepherd's pie.

The Rienzi Punch Party was one of the most vibrant, enjoyable events I've attended this fall, and I look forward to attending in years to come. My heart may belong to the Victorian era, but every October I'll allow myself to revel in the spirit(s) of the eighteenth century.

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Joanna O'Leary