Our cocktail history is a long and rich one. Starting with the Pilgrims stopping at Plymouth Rock because they were out of beer, up to the current rise of the craft cocktails, we have seen a little bit of everything. One of the longest runs in our cocktail history is one that for the most part has been forgotten, other than remnants of them in some of the cocktails we enjoy today. It was present up right to the end of the 19th century, encouraging people to gather around and spend a few hours with each other, ladling out glasses of potent liquid to cool off in the hot summer months, and to warm up in the cold winter months. The punch was a staple of the growing United States, being present at every bar and gathering in the country, and for some very good reasons.
Punches originated in India, where the British were stationed with little access to the good alcohols they enjoyed at home. And the British sailors did not like to be separated from their ration of one gallon of beer a day. Or a half pint of rum, whichever they preferred. One of the origin stories for why they called it “punch” was a slant on the Indian word panch (five), the number of ingredients the punch was supposed to have. The drink was created with alcohol, lemon, sugar, water, and tea or other native spices. The alcohol became whatever was handy at the time. It began with wine, but rum, brandy, and whiskey punches were also popular in the various areas of the British Empire. It was so popular that a special bowl was even created for it, called a Monteith Bowl. It had a scalloped edge, which eventually became removable, where a ladle could be kept or the stems of wine glasses could be held.
It spread with the empire. Rum houses sprang up all over the United States and Caribbean islands. The earliest recorded punch in the New World is the Bajan (Barbadian) Rum Punch. It was so popular it even had its own rhyme for a recipe: One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak. One part lime juice, two parts sweetener (usually sugar), three parts rum, and four parts water. Local spices were also added to the mix, recreating the five part panch. As the drink spread through the country, regional variances changed the flavors, and in some case the potency, of the tipple. The Schyulkill Fishing Company created the most famous variation, known as the Fish House Punch. Possibly for the gentlemen there to enjoy, possibly something lighter for the ladies to enjoy at a Christmas Party in 1848. Punches of all varieties became a staple of dinners, of meetings, of daily life in the young country. At one dinner in 1785, the host reported that sixty-eight people went through forty-four bowls of punch, as well as eighteen bottles of wine and a large quantity of other rums and brandy. Rum was the staple liquor in the colonies, and in many punches, since it was readily available and cheap. The cheapness of the rum was another reason punches were so popular; in the 18th century, rum was still in its infancy. It was awful. The additional flavors and water added to the punch helped to hide the awfulness of the cheap and nearly raw spirit.
Punches started to fall out of favor just before the Civil War. Punches were something to be consumed by a group of people over several hours, and we were starting to roll out across the country. Railroads were being built, gold was being discovered, and acres of land were out there for the taking. This was a growing country, and this was no time to sit and drink. There were more options for drinks as well, and people were looking for something more individualized. They did not want to all have to drink the same thing. They lasted until the beginning of the 20th century as a curiosity, something of a cocktail throwback. They were pushed to the back of recipe books in favor of collins, cobblers, and sours, many of which owe their existence to the recipe of punch. Some of the first tiki style drinks from the 1950’s were also based off of punch recipes. Since then, punch’s non-alcoholic form (which was always around, just not as popular) became a staple at kids’ parties for the same reason it was a staple at dinners; it brings people together around a communal place to drink something refreshing in a social setting.
Punches are still a great way to present something to your guests at a party so they can serve themselves. They can be prepared in advance, and you can make them to taste, taking into consideration the time of year you are serving them. Right now, a nice apple cider punch or something with fall spices like cinnamon and nutmeg would be delightful. September 20th is National Punch and Rum Punch Day. Gather some friends together, stir together one part sour, two parts sweet, three parts strong and four parts weak, add a few spices to taste, and enjoy an evening around a fire. Cheers!
1 cup lime juice
2 cups simple syrup (Heat one cup of water, then add a cup of sugar. Mix until dissolved, allow to cool)
3 cups of rum
4 cups of water
A few dashes of Angostura bitters
Nutmeg to taste
Stir all of the ingredients into a pitcher or bowl. Ladle into individual cups over ice, add nutmeg to taste.
Philadelphia Fish House Punch
1 cup sugar
3 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 cups fresh lemon juice
1 (750-ml) bottle Jamaican amber rum
12 oz Cognac (1 1/2 cups)
2 oz peach brandy (1/4 cup)
In a large bowl, stir the sugar into the water until the sugar is dissolved. Then mix in the lemon juice, rum, cognac, and brandy. Put the mixture into the refrigerator for three to four hours until chilled. Serve over a large block of ice for the sake of tradition, or in cups with ice in them. Garnish with wheels of lemon. If you deem this as too strong when tasting it, add more water or black tea.
(Recipe via Epicurious)