The first printed record of punch dates to 1632, but like most origin stories in the world of mixed drinks, precisely where and when it was invented remains unclear.
Loosely defined in 1638 by German adventurer, Johan Albert de Mandelslo, as “a kind of drink consisting of aqua vitae, rose-water, juice of citrons and sugar,” punch has, for much of its history, been based on just four or five central ingredients—spirit, citrus, water, sweetener and often, spice. While some speculate that punch originated with expats in India, looking for a way to mask inferior spirits, what is clear is that by the end of that century, the large-format punch had become so ubiquitous that drinkers were already going so far as to consider the word’s etymology; in 1676, a member of the British East India Company suggested punch derives from paunch, the Indian word for five, signifying these five central components.
Certainly, the trade routes had a significant effect on the development of the drink—both tea and citrus came from Southeast Asia, as did the then-popular base spirit, arrack, which was distilled from a variety of sources (including palm wine or, in the case of Java’s Batavia arrack, molasses and rice). The preferred spirit for punch in Europe throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, arrack was popular even in the American colonies, writes David Wondrich in Punch, after having made its way practically around the world.
But with the proliferation of the drink came recipes calling for alternate (often cheaper) spirits, namely brandy in Europe and rum in America, beginning as early as 1670. And in later decades, many more opulent recipes began to appear, often calling for a combinations of spirits and for the addition of wine. The classic Regent Punch, for example, includes measures of brandy, rum and arrack, plus Champagne; similarly, recipes for Daniel Webster’s Punch—of which there are many, depending on where you look—will add both red wine and sherry to an already highly spiritous base.
Despite its potency, it wasn’t uncommon for large parties to empty dozens of punch bowls in a single sitting. Near the height of the drink’s popularity, in 1783, writes Wondrich, New York State governor George Clinton welcomed the French ambassador by serving 30 bowls of rum punch to a room of just 120 guests (along with 135 bottles of Madeira, 36 of port and 60 of beer). At a similarly booze-driven event in 1785, he writes, a group of 80 people drank a total of 30 bowls of punch—plus an additional 44 at dinner—to celebrate the ordination of a New England minister.
But beginning in the mid-19th century, a number of incremental societal shifts would begin to conspire against the drink’s popularity. For one thing, improved distillation processes and the advent of aged spirits offered a bevy of increasingly palatable alternatives, dissolving the need to temper spirit with citrus and spice. In America, where the taste for punch was first to fade, the industrial age added a sense of urgency to all activities, including drinking. The practice of preparing punch, which often included waiting a period of time for the citrus-and-sugar oleo-sacchrum to steep, became the focus of holidays and ceremonies, rather than a daily undertaking.
Today, however, the ritual of drinking from the traditional punch bowl is once again on the rise and cocktail programs devoted to it can be found dotted across the country. At Austin’s Olamaie, for example, punch is so central to the menu that the selection varies daily. New York’s Prime Meats similarly offers a daily punch, which is generally better-suited to the modern palate than the brandy- and arrack-based punches of centuries-past; in the case of their So Long, Sweet Summer, the drink’s traditional elements—citrus, sugar and spice—are all in play, but so too is a dose of spicy, barrel-aged gin, and bitter Cocchi Americano, for a 21st-century take on the most classic of drinks.
Here, some of our favorite historic punches and their modern interpretations.
In keeping with the original formula of spirit, citrus, oleo-saccharum and tea, the Philadelphia Fish House and Charles Dickens’ punches are among the most classic of the bunch, each drawing on a base of brandy and rum—the latter (bonus) set on fire. Many modern interpretations riff on that original template just slightly, adding in sherry and falernum, in the case of Ferdinand & Isabella’s Punch, or a hint coffee liqueur, which Caitlin Laman employs in her rich and smoky Dorothy’s Delight. Less conventional still is the Smoochin’ Under the Clock Tower, which calls on reposado tequila and cumin-scented kümmel for an especially savory variation that can be served hot or cold.
While all of the above punches include a hefty dose of red wine, they vary in flavor and strength. Among the strongest are the wine- and cognac-driven Daniel Webster and Hannah Wooley punches, which are also among the most historic. The more modern Painful Punch, which gets a dose of sweetness from pineapple juice, draws on this formula, too, but dials back on the ratio of spirit to wine. Then are some punches that nix the spirit altogether; the Victorian-era Smoking Bishop offers a heavily spiced, hot blend of sweetened port and red wine, while the low-ABV Queen Charlotte Punch sees wine blended with lemon and orange juices and raspberry gomme syrup. Topped with soda water and served over ice, it’s an appropriately seasonal—and far less spirituous—punch for a crowd.
A favorite of Kind George IV, the historic Regent Punch combines a variety of spirits—Batavia arrack, Cognac and Jamaican rum—with green tea, pineapple juice and a light dose of Champagne. Modern recipes, like Martin Cate’s Hibiscus Punch Royale and Prime Meats’ So Long, Sweet Summer, often opt for a larger dose of sparkling wine, whereas other recipes call on bubbly alternatives. Meanwhile, the Poor Richard, a cranberry-flavored punch, gets topped with dry cider and Damon Boelte’s gin- and sherry-based Parish Hall Punch calls on a combination of cider, ginger beer and soda water for an especially bright, low-ABV variation.