For me it conjures up a visions of college when alcohol was scarce, and money was scarcer1.
But it wasn't always like that. Once upon a time, a punch was an elegant thing.
In fact, before there were cocktails, there were punches.
Punches were mixed drinks. But instead of mixing one glass, they were made in large quantities, served in big bowls.
A drink for a group.
A communal drink.
Oxford English Dictionary, dates the word "punch" to 1632. The OED believes it derives from the Sanscrit "paunch", meaning “five,” a reference to the original five-ingredient recipe: spirits (rum, brandy, or arrack); sugar; water; citrus; and spice (usually grated nutmeg, but sometimes green or black tea).
Punch was popular in England from the 1600s to the 1850s. Because punch was made with imported ingredients like citrus and spices, and it was made in large quantities, it was too expensive for the lower classes. “It was a gentlemanly drink,” says cocktail historian David Wondrich2. It was one of the few things a man would prepare himself and not trust to the servants. It came with the English to Colonial America, where it was served in taverns and at parties in private homes.
Why did punch fall from favor? It seems there were many factors, not the least of which was that there was more money to be made by selling drinks by the glass, not by the bowl. However, today, serving punch by the bowl is making a comeback, and it one of the latest things in today’s cocktail scene - here in San Francisco you can get punch by the bowl at Elixir, or The Rickhouse (for example).
Today’s recipe comes to us via David Wondrich, and the proportions are taken from the 1694 regulations the English government put out for Bombay punch houses3: “if any man comes into a victualling house to drink punch, he may demand one quart good Goa arak, half a pound of sugar, and half a pint of good lime water, and make his own punch.” Goa arrack (the local hooch) was made from coconut-palm sap, but sugar-cane arrack (from the next archipelago over) and then rum were natural substitutes. The addition of a water or tea is also traditional (and very sensible.)
Batavia Arrack is made from sugarcane and fermented red rice, and is only manufactured in Java, Indonesia. Between the flavor of the red rice and aging it in teak, it develops a distinct flavor. And smell. But this is a good thing.
Batavia Arrack is one of the so-called “Lazarus Ingredients” – unavailable for decades, formerly famous, but until recently only known in old books and old recipes. Batavia Arrack has been made continuously, but was not imported into the United States for over half a century(?). Fortunately, with the renaissance of classic cocktails, Batavia Arrack is again being imported, and readily available at stores here in the San Francisco area, one of the epicenters of the cocktail renaissance.
Eric Seed who imports Batavia-Arrack into the United States, says, “It marries especially well with spices and fruit, yet it has a back-palate effect similar to that of dark chocolate.” Because of its unique flavor profile, he says, most of the sales today are to European chocolatiers. “You can use it in lieu of a vanilla,” Seed says.
The preparation of punches is usually quite straight-forward, although it is best to prepare them at least a couple of hours ahead of time to let the flavors marry, and to give it time to chill. I made our punch at 11:00 am to serve at 6:30 pm and our cocktail research team commented on how well integrated the flavors were.
Bombay Government Punch
- Mix 2 cups Demerera sugar in water, heat gently and stir until completely dissolved
- Mix in 12 oz lime juice
- add 16 oz Batavia Arrack & 32 oz Dark Rum ( I used Coruba and Lemon Hart)
- Add 6 cups water or tea (I used a mild green tea)
- Stir and Refrigerate
- 1/2 hour before serving add large ice cube (mine was made in a 2 quart tupperware container)
- garnish with grated nutmeg
This punch is about 18% alcohol (~ 36 proof).
That’s more than three times the strength of beer, and 50% stronger than wine.
The punch was very popular - it was, as Eric Seed posted on Chanticleer, "a crowd pleaser". O thought this was an "A List" drink, while Millie4 thought it would only be so for those whose palates enjoyed the taste of alcohol.
A punch is a lot less work for the host of the party than shaking drinks. However, people seem to drink a lot more punch than they do cocktails. Or maybe its just that they drink more of my punches .... In any case, I'm very specific about posting signs prominently that give the strength of the drink - ever since I started serving 'Fish House Punch'. But those stories will have to wait until the postings about Lady Chatterley's Mixologist.
1 Of course there was the time in college when we made a fruit punch using a bottle of 96% ethanol (food grade). It was completely tasteless, and by 8:30 pm the party was over and the room was filled with sleeping people. The things you learn (and try) in engineering school.
2I've seen several references on the internet, notably Chowhound, suggesting that this recipe is from David Wondrich's excellent book Imbibe, the 2008 winner of the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Book About Wine and Spirits. However, I can't find the recipe in my copy.
3I found references on the net suggesting that “punch house” may be (or was) a euphemism for ‘brothel.’ Hmmm ...
4 Definitely a goddess, but which one? We think she may be one of the Norns
- Three times nine girls, but one girl rode ahead,
- white-skinned under her helmet;