Pleased as Punch: The History of the Holidays’ Best Drink (+ a Recipe!)
Whether you’re hosting a holiday party, planning your office soiree, or just trying to weasel your way out of bringing hors d’oeuvres to your friend’s potluck (seriously, who has time to make that many deviled eggs?), the answer is the same: Punch. Fun, festive, and almost ridiculously easy to make, a big bowl of punch makes any gathering a party while freeing you from spending the whole evening playing bartender instead of enjoying your friends and family.
But punch is more than just a big cocktail in a bowl. It’s also a piece of living history, a boozy thread connecting us to the early American colonists, Victorian England, and even the British sailors who shipped out to India in search of valuable spices in the 1600s.
Punch’s International History
Punch’s origin story begins in the 17th century, when European merchants were heavily involved in the spice trade. Sailors traveling from Britain were accustomed to generous daily drinks rations, but the voyage between the Atlantic and the Indian oceans was long and hot enough that normal beer and wine would spoil by the time they reached their destination. The solution? Spirits.
On those long voyages, sailors drank brandy, and, later, rum. But those early spirits were often quite rough-and-tumble, imperfectly rectified and then bottled at very high proof. To make them drinkable, sailors diluted them with water to somewhere around wine strength. Then, once they arrived in India and had access to ingredients like citrus, spices, and sugar, they doctored up their drinks to make them more delicious. Cocktail historian David Wondrich even posits that these additions might have been an effort to make their brandy-and-water “wine” taste more like real wine by reintroducing those acidic, sweet, and warming flavors that sometimes vanish during distillation.
As those sailors returned home, they took their taste for punch with them. The drink’s popularity spread throughout England, migrating from the docks to the bourgeois coffee houses of urban London. At the time, many of the ingredients we associate with punch, especially things like nutmeg and allspice, were wildly expensive, so the drink became associated with the upper class. Yet the format—big, generous, communal bowls of good cheer—had universal appeal, evidenced by the popularity of wassail, the spiced wine served to carolers during the Christmas season, during the Victorian era.
Across the Atlantic, American colonists adopted punch with enthusiasm, drawing on the delicious spices and fiery Caribbean rum that comprised one leg of the triangle trade. Punch in early America was served at seemingly every occasion, including the celebration after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and enjoyed in abundance. At one party in 1783, the governor of New York served a party of 120 guests with 30 bowls of rum punch, 135 bottles of Madeira, 36 bottles of port, and 60 bottles of beer. Whew. Philadelphia was particularly closely associated with punch, which was enjoyed at the hundreds of Punch Houses scattered across the city—including the State in Schuylkill Fishing Corporation, a social club that invented the famous Fish House Punch.
Punch’s favor waxed and waned over the decades, but it never truly went away. Perhaps only sparkling wine (and hey, many punches are full of sparkling wine) matches punch in terms of festivity, and the novelty of ladling your own drink out of a crystal-cut bowl into a tiny teacup never gets old. Even today, high-end bartenders around the country are turning to punch for cocktail inspiration, serving housemade concoctions inspired by historic recipes but updated for a contemporary twist.
Ready to get on the punch train? We’ve got you covered. Here’s a great classic recipe to start with: Fish House Punch, the bold, boozy concoction first invented in Philadelphia. It comes from David Wondrich by way of Punch Drink, and serves a crowd, up to 20 people.
1 cup sugar
The fresh peel of four lemons
4 cups black tea
1 cup lemon juice
4 cups Jamaican rum
2 cups Cognac
½ cup peach brandy
Ice ring (see note below)
Lemon wheels and freshly grated nutmeg for garnish
First, make the oleo-saccharum. Put the lemon peels and sugar in a bowl and massage to combine. Let rest overnight. The sugar will draw the oils in the lemon peels out and create a thick, citrusy syrup.
At the same time, make your ice ring by filling a bundt pan with water and freezing it overnight. If you’re feeling fancy, go ahead and throw a few lemon wheels in there for decoration.
When ready to assemble, strain the lemon peels from the oleo-saccharum. Combine the oleo-saccharum, tea, rum, Cognac, lemon juice, and peach brandy and stir to combine.
To assemble, unmold your ice ring and put it in the punch bowl. Pour the rum-Cognac mixture over the top. Garnish with lemon wheels and freshly grated nutmeg, and serve. As the ice melts, continue to add more ice to keep the punch cold. This serves a second, added bonus of diluting the punch a bit as the party wears on—and trust us, a couple of ladles full of Fish House punch and your guests won’t mind the extra hydration one bit.