ON BEING PUNCH DRUNK
Thought to be the first cocktail, punch is reportedly a 17th century invention of sailors employed by the British East India Company who discovered, to their dismay, that their allotment of beer (10 pints per shipman per day) grew rancid and flat when the ships reached the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. Once ashore, the sailors created new drinks from indigenous ingredients. One theory proposes that the name punch is taken from the Hindi word for five, reflecting the number of those ingredients (lemon or lime juice, sugar, spirits, water and spices). Another theory suggests that the name derives from the short, wide casks, called puncheons, in which the drink was stored.
Not only did punch boost sailor’s morale on long voyages, it’s high concentration of citrus protected them from scurvy. When the ships returned to London over-provisioned with punch ingredients, the East India Company invited investors to board and drink a bowl of punch with the sailors. A visit to the docks became fashionable and, made with imported ingredients that were very expensive in England (in 1690s London, a three quart bowl of punch cast half a week’s living wage), punch became the tipple of choice for the aristocracy. Punch bowls became status symbols (one account described an ostentatious member of the gentry who commissioned a punch bowl large enough for three children to play in).
Initially most punches were made with a wine or brandy base but, after Great Britain colonized sugar producing nations, rum became the guzzle of choice for both sailors and aristocrats. From England, punch traveled to Europe and, eventually, to the Americas. According to some reports the founding fathers drank 76 bowls of punch at the celebration following the signing of the Declaration of Independence. A recipe from 1789, intended for the entire town of Medfield, Massachusetts, called for “4 barrels of beer, 25 gallons of West India rum, 30 gallons of New England rum, 34 pounds of loaf sugar, 25 pounds of brown sugar and 465 lemons.”
Queen Victoria disapproved of strong drink and, during her reign in England, non-alcoholic punches, considered appropriate for ladies and children, prevailed. This was enough to cause Charles Dickens, who didn’t share the Queen’s aversion to booze, to publish a piece titled A Bowl of Punch that bemoaned the fact that the punch bowls once prominently displayed London bars were now stacked in storage rooms gathering dust. Punch continued to be out of favor until the arrival of cocktail culture in the 1950s made it socially acceptable for women to drink in public.
While mixologists at stylish eateries recently have made an effort to revive the punch tradition, college students have been mixing it as a cheap party drink for decades. “Jungle juice,” composed of various liquors brought by guests at a bring-your-own-bottle party, mixed in a lined trash can with various carbonated beverages (or even kool aid), has caused many an undergraduate headache.
Planters punch was invented at the bar of the Planter’s House Hotel in St. Louis, Missouri. The recipe below, featuring lime juice, sugar, rum and water, was in the August 8, 1908 edition of the New York Times:
This recipe I give to thee,
Dear brother in the heat.
Take two of sour (lime let it be)
To one and a half of sweet,
Of Old Jamaica pour three strong,
And add four parts of weak.
Then mix and drink. I do no wrong –
I know whereof I speak.