Words by: Jane Ryan
Rum, citrus, sugar, water and bitters. From Charles Dickens to America’s founding fathers, pirates and Royal Navy sailors, it’s easy to see why one of the world’s oldest drinks has remained a constant companion to generations of people, from all walks of life.
The 20th of September is Rum Punch Day and no drink deserves a dedicated day as much as this timeless classic. For as David Wondrich says in Imbibe! "For nearly two hundred years, from the 1670s to the 1850s, the Kingdom of Mixed Drinks was ruled by the Bowl of Punch." Think not of the anaemic overly fruity and sweet concoctions college students mix up to annihilate themselves, this is a drink deeply rooted in history, and, when made correctly, stands that harshest test of all - time.
Punch as a concept, a drink loosely following the adage of 'one of sour, two of sweet, three of strong and four of weak' first appears not with rum but with wine, in 1576. This is its first print reference, but sadly for keen cocktail historians, we will never know who mixed the first bowl of punch, it was probably long before this. We will never know what the original spirit was, what citrus was first used, what type of sugar. But we do know that it was in India that this drink was imbibed by English explorers and travellers, and soon spread out across the centuries with England's rapidly growing empire.
Punch remained the choice of tipple for English aristocrats for hundreds of years to come. There was something about the sharing nature of it, everyone consuming together, that was perfect at gatherings. And as the lower classes attempted to emulate those punch-imbibing rich folks, it became the drink to be seen drinking.
Recipes from this age are somewhat sketchy but we know most punches combined spirits with tea, sugar, citrus and nutmeg. These were not the cheapest of ingredients to come by, as Wondrich says in Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl "The lemons alone cost the equivalent of eight dollars each. In 1690s London a three-quart bowl of Rum Punch would set you back half a week's living wage." Punch bowls started becoming an accessory to acquire and show off. There are accounts of the ostentatiously rich commissioning punch bowls large enough for three children to play in and melting down coinage to make them.
And it was rum that became the most popular choice for both England's punch-guzzling aristocracy and as the drink of the sea. As soon as England got hold of sugar producing nations, The Royal Navy were quick to swap the daily allowance of a gallon of beer or pint of wine for half a pint a Jamaican rum. Not only did this smaller portion take up much less room on board but it didn't spoil on the long journeys. As rum was being produced throughout England's new found territories, from New England in America to Mauritius off the coast of Africa, it made its way back to Londoners who would have been troubled to get hold of brandy as England waged its constant wars against France and Spain. When the boats docked from the Caribbean, as William Dampier wrote in his book of 1697 A New Voyage Around the World, the were "always well stored with rum, sugar and lime juice to make punch, to hearten their men when they are at work."
In the tropics themselves, as Jeff Berry writes in his introduction to Potions of the Caribbean, "Rum mixed with sugar and lime made the nasty, brutish, short life of the average Caribbean combatant worth living." Or as Wondrich wrote "But whether it's the Ti Punch of Martinique, where the citrus has been reduced to a mere squeezing of lime peel, the Peanut Punch popular in Trinidad or Jamaica, or the generic Rum Punch, made with a bottled tutti-frutti mix that you'll find throughout the region, the drink is invariably based on rum."
Despite movie franchises such as Pirates of the Caribbean depicting Caribbean cutthroats swigging straight from bottles of rum, the men of the 17th and 18th centuries who resided on the islands, be they ruffians or not, actually preferred a bowl of Rum Punch. There are countless tales of merchant seamen being lured with Rum Punch only to find themselves surrounded by pirates. Indeed it was the infamous Captain Kidd who negotiated a privateer contract over Rum Punch with the then commander-in-chief of England's Caribbean forces.
The punch they drank is possibly known today, as pointed out by Richard Zacks in his book The Pirate Hunter which cites an eyewitness to this meeting in 1688. The punch was supposedly made of "rum, water, lime-juice, egg yolk, sugar with a little nutmeg scrap'd on top." Jeff Berry has translated this 320 year old recipe, replacing ice for water.
Captain Kidd's Punch
For an individual serve, shake over ice and strain into a punch cup. Grate nutmeg ontop.
2 ounces gold Barbados rum
1 ounce gold muscovado sugar
½ ounce fresh lime juice
1 raw egg
From the tropics back to Europe, and growing throughout the new world, Rum Punch was managing to hold its spot as a favourite indulgence. Traditions surrounding a flowing bowl of punch were steeped in history and companionship. It was the ultimate sharing drink, to be consumed at leisure and enjoyed right to the last drop. It's even been written that the founding fathers and friends drank 76 bowls at the celebration following the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
The Meeting House Punch is a recipe from this time, 1789, just 13 years after the Declaration of Independence, which was intended for the entire town of Medfield, Massacusetts. According to Jeff Berry it called for "four barrels of beer, twenty five gallons of West India rum, thirty gallons of New England rum, thirty four pounds of loaf sugar, twenty five pounds of brown sugar and four hundred and sixty five lemons."
Sadly times changed and as the Victorian era ushered in a new style of drinking, ultimately drink less and for shorter periods of time, the punch bowls were left to gather dust. It was in a magazine entitled Household Words edited by Charles Dickens, and so potentially written by the great man himself, that a piece was published, 'A Bowl of Punch', which bemoaned the fact that punch bowls which once lined the shelves in bars ready to be called upon were now stacked up and uncalled for.
Punch also fell victim to the pace at which we started to live our lives. Sitting around in bars sipping out of a huge bowl of libation became too much a luxury, too much a statement of leisure. In a world where the busier we seem to be, the more important our status, slow unhurried drinking is a thing of the past. Indeed by the time the grandfather of bartending, Mr Jerry Thomas wrote his guide punches were already a thing of the past. As Wondrich points out, although he had many recipes in his book they were probably fostered on him by publishers and were in fact obsolete.
Nowadays we enjoy our Rum Punch by the glass, and although still a delightful cocktail, it's never as good as when shared with friends and family out of a stunning bowl.
In Punch! David Wondrich identifies four main areas of punch-making which became refined throughout the centuries of our ancestors combing spirits, sugar and citrus together. These are the handling of the citrus oil, the handling of the citrus juice the order of assembly and the proportions of the ingredients. And the first pillar of punch-making has to be the oleo-saccharum.
The oil of a citrus fruit, and in this case we're speaking almost exclusively about lemons, is a very fragrant element which can, used in the right way, impart a lot of flavour to punch. In fact it was Jerry Thomas who wrote "to make punch of any sort in perfection, the ambrosial essence of the lemon must be extracted."
The easiest way to extract this oil is with sugar. The following technique works well with oranges as well, but if lime is the citrus of choice for your Rum Punch recipe then abstain, its peel is bitter and won't help the drink at all.
Oleo-Saccharum is Latin (or rather dog Latin) for oil-sugar, and is a method used in punch-making since at least 1670 which is where we find the first recorded mention. It basically means infusing the sugar with the citrus oils. Jerry Thomas recommended rubbing lumps of sugar on the rind to break the oils open and simultaneously infuse the sugar. However this wouldn't work nowadays as our modern sugar isn't strong enough. As Wondrich found out "I've tried it with every kind of modern sugarloaf, cube and crystal I could procure and only ended up with a mass of crumbled, faintly scented sugar and a lemon undimmed in its yellowness. In this, our ancestors had the advantage on us."
The simplest, although a tad time consuming, method is to peel the lemons, aiming to get as little pith as possible and muddle in a bowl with the sugar. Modern techniques for mass production have even seen the use of vacuum packs to speed up the infusion process.
From William Schmidt's 1891 The Flowing Bowl: When And What To Drink, Rum Punch
"Put two pounds of sugar in a tureen; squeeze on it the juice of five lemons, add the thin peel of two lemons, and three quarts of boiling water. After the sugar is dissolved add a bottle of old Jamaica rum, and a bottle of champagne, and serve hot or cold."
From The Savoy Cocktail Book, Roman Punch
"This ancient Silver bowl of mine, it tells of good old times,
Of joyous days, and jolly nights, and merry Christmas Chimes,
They were a free and jovial race, but honest, brave and true,
That dipped their ladle in the punch when this old bowl was new."
So starts the punch section to Harry Craddock's recipe book. Craddock then goes on to give this piece of advice "...there is one grand secret in its concoction that must be mastered with patience and care. It is just this, that the various subtle ingredients be thoroughly mixed in such a way, that neither the bitter, the sweet, the spirit, nor any liquor be perceptible the one over the other."
The Rum Punch here is in fact a Roman Punch.
1 Qt Champagne
1 Qt Rum
½ liqueur glass orange bitters
The juice of ten 10 lemons
The juice of 3 oranges
2 lbs sugar
The whites of 10 eggs.
"Use punch bowl. Dissolve Sugar in lemon and orange juice, add the rind of one orange, add the well beaten whites of eggs. Surround the bowl with cracked ice and stir the ingredients well together."
From David Wondrich's Punch, Glasgow Punch
"In a one-and-a-half-quart jug or bowl, dissolve 6 ounces fine grained raw sugar, such as Florida Crystals, in 6 ounces water. Add 4 ounces strained lemon juice and 20 ounces cold water. Stir in 6 or 7 ounces strong Jamaican-style rum, cut two well-ripened limes in half, run the cut sides around the rim of the jug or bowl and hand-squeeze the juice in. Serve. Yields 5 cups."