How Punch Became Everyone’s Favorite Party Drink

Before mixed drinks like the Sazerac and the martini were dancing on the palates of their forgotten creators, punch was king. Long before even the word “cocktail” was invented, proprietors of clubs and taverns, hosts at grand parties, and swashbuckling sailors all mixed booze, sugar, and citrus together to achieve a perfect balance. Today, these historic concoctions lend their name to all manners of drink—including garbage cans splashed with a chaotic assortment of ingredients with the express interest of getting messed up and fast and the zero-proof juice combo American kids have loved for nearly a century. These drinks—like all cocktails—have their roots in an art form that was the height of worldwide mixology for at least twice as long.

During that heyday that ran through the 18th and 19th century, a slightly narrower collection of drinks fell under the punch umbrella. Most classic punch recipes were alcoholic; you can find recipes spiked with brandy, whiskey, gin, rum, and arrack, a spirit distilled across Southeast Asia from various fruits and grains (including sugar cane, which is technically a grass) and the fermented sap of coconut flowers. (This region is also a strong contender for the locus of punch’s origin story, but more on that in a minute.) You won’t see 7UP exactly, but citrus and sugar make their way into the vast majority of classic punches. Many 18th- and 19th-century punches call for spices and for tea, while others demand milk, wine, or even vinegar. There are hot punches and cold punches and Champagne punches and pineapple punches.

Bartender Natasha David’s latest punch recipe calls on hibiscus tea and red wine.

Photo by Travis Rainey, Food Styling by Tiffany Schleigh

Finding the common thread can be tricky, but what else would one expect of a style of drink with such longevity and geographic reach? Still, punch was—and is—a distinct style of drink. When we look at the bowl that bears its name, we understand its definition: it’s an (often boozy) communal enterprise. You can take the punch out of the bowl—and many have over the years for a bunch of reasons—but the metaphoric bowl remains. We make punch to share together. This has always been true.

“I make punch all the time. I bring it to parties,” says drink historian David Wondrich. “It’s my wedding gift when people get married. I’ll make them five gallons.” In his 2010 book, Punch, Wondrich writes that the drink’s name may have been borrowed from Hindi, where the word paantsch means “five.” It was used to describe a drink that was popular since at least the latter half of the 17th century that combined that number of ingredients: spirit, citrus, sugar, spice, and water.

Wondrich tells me that it remains a bit of a mystery—and a matter of some contention—whether the origin of punch was British or Southeast Asian. Among the oldest versions he knows is an Indian recipe from about 1630 called chare bockhra (which translates to “four parts,” giving credence to the later translation of punch as ‘“five”) but Wondrich maintains that the concoction was mixed for British soldiers. “There’s nothing conclusive,” Wondrich says, but “there’s no strong evidence that it was something drunk in India before Europeans arrived.” The drink shares similarities with Northern Europe’s older tradition of wassail, where cider, ale or wine was spiced and warmed and served communally. It’s clear, though, that punch rapidly spread via colonial trade routes, as fast as frat boys would get housed on jungle juice a few centuries later. “From the 1630s it spread all over the world over the next twenty years,” Wondrich says, “which is pretty quick considering it took eight months to sail back to Europe.”

Wondrich himself still favors a formula that’s pretty close to the classic five-part recipe. It’s one that leaves a lot of room to experiment, especially in terms of which spirit you pour in. You may need to look around a bit to find the iconic arrack—the most commonly found bottling in the US is Batavia-Arrack van Oosten—but great classic versions of this style of punch can also be made brandy or rum. More modern punches use whiskey and most recently, agave. Wondrich says he loves a mezcal punch.

Often the “spice” element is added by including some kind of tea, and some practitioners swear by the practice of making an oleo saccharum, which involves macerating citrus peel in sugar for a while before adding the fragrant, citrusy syrup to your punch. If you add citrus juice to the oleo saccharum it forms a shrub (it’s worth noting that this is different from the vinegar shrubs you sometimes find in old cocktail recipes), and that shrub sometimes took the name “sherbet,” from the Hindi and Farsi word sharbat, which described citrusy cordials served across Iran, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and beyond. While the classic punches never used a frozen ingredient, the word sherbet or sherbert still pops up today, describing the frosty scoops plopped into a fizzy punch in midcentury on the other side of the globe.

The often-forgotten key to punch, though, is water. It’s what makes it possible to drink punch for hours, distinguishing it in Wondrich’s mind from a “big cocktail.”

“Originally punch was an artificial wine, basically. It was meant to be drunk like you drink wine…you could have three or four glasses without falling over,” Wondrich says. “Not like how martinis are drunk, where after three, things can get to be very strange.”

The classic recipes for a punch made with spirits, citrus, sugar, spices, and water spread as far as the Caribbean and the Americas, and many recipes today still find their roots in those ratios. This was the stuff of the British Navy and of colonial estates (Jefferson and Washington both had recipes). It is the pirate juice that, as the story goes, likely got Calico Jack sussed in the iconic capture of his ship William along with his famous lovers Anne Bonny and Mary Read (who according to legend were drunk enough, but not too drunk to fight, unlike ol’ Jack.) By 1862, punch had splintered into myriad variations: Jerry Thomas’s famous Bar-Tenders’ Guide (the original American cocktail book) featured a whopping 79 punch recipes.

As bartending developed through the years on a parallel path to the racing industrial world outside the tavern yard, punch began to transform. The giant bowls appeared more and more rarely on the bar top, and single serving “punches” took the lead. By the heyday of the pre-Prohibition and mid-century international cocktail scene, punch was already becoming the kind of drink reserved just for special occasions.

It lingered in popular culture and high school dances, fizzed with 7UP and sweetened with scoops of frozen sherbet. The popular fruit punch from the early 1930s is now produced by Keurig Dr Pepper. But the classic form lingered on in old-fashioned establishments, such as the historic City Tavern in Philadelphia. When Wondrich’s book appeared smack-dab in the middle of the grand Cocktail Revival, though, more bars began to experiment with punch service just as more folks at home became interested in mixing punch for guests.

David Wondrich’s Easy, Elegant Christmas Punch.

“It’s one of my favorite ways to drink a sour,” says Neal Bodenheimer, a partner at several New Orleans bars who serve large-format punch, including the longstanding cocktail haven Cure and the rum-focused restaurant Cane & Table. Cure began to offer punch a little cheaper than their normal cocktail fare after Bodenheimer and his bartenders read Punch and saw the concept as a great way to get people a drink fast, using citrus from the previous night’s service and bottles they were keen to pour. Bartenders prepped a daily punch before the bar opened and they’d serve it just until the bowl was dry. “It’s a forgiving format,” says Bodenheimer. “Do we have any glut in the liquor room? It’s a way to process waste and be more efficient.”

More recent history has had its effect on communal drinking. When the pandemic hit the US, it shuttered many bars, and while Cure was one of the lucky survivors, when they opened back up it seemed prudent to leave the antique, ornate punch bowl in storage. Cure turned to a closed-air beverage dispenser for their daily punches, but other bars have moved on. In 2023, it’s harder to find a bar that still offers punch service every day.

In a way, though, punch has returned to its roots. You’re more likely to find one lovingly made by someone you know personally, and it’s often doled out to mark a special occasion. They’re more likely enjoyed at a neighbor’s home than they are in a public house—although for a lucky few, perhaps punch on the deck of a ship is still an option. But the history of punch is not completely written yet. Drinks trends come and go and come again, and we have very few culinary endeavors that have survived (more or less intact!) for nearly four hundred years. As I was writing this article, Bodenheimer told me that their beverage dispenser had sprung a leak and so he’d decided that Cure would once again be polishing the punch bowl and ladle for nightly service. Will we see more bars in the next few years follow suit? In the meantime we can do our part to keep the tradition alive by building a punch at home and gathering the folks we love around it.

Palaver Punch

Photo by Travis Rainey, Food Styling by Tiffany Schleigh

Originally Appeared on Epicurious

source: star-telegram

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