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It's All True

It’s true. It’s the multi-belief-system holiday season again. Time to reflect/give gifts/remember/get revenge/blow people up, as one’s personal-yet- codified dogma dictates. One thing is for certain, though, as was so eloquently expressed by our liege, J. Mailander, there’s punch.

Hogarth\'s Midnight Modern Conversation (detail)

One of the best explanations of the overriding importance of punch is in this book: “Mixologist; The Journal of the American Cocktail.” In it, David Wondrich, Esquire Magazine’s drink maven, takes us through what punch was when punch was king, and what punch was, was pretty specific. Punch had (and meant) five ingredients. This would’ve been around, oh, the 1630s. The five ingredients were: citrus fruit, cane sugar, water, spice, and number five: arrack. Of these, in Europe, all were arcane except water. Now, all are common except arrack. Arrack, while strange to Western ears, is a name well known in the Middle East. It’s an anise-flavored spirit, and an acquired taste. In the 17th century, it was mainly just a word for liquor.

A hundred years later, punch was the monarch of drinks, and monarchs drank it – as did everyone, from cups ladled from large bowls just as we’d expect. They even upended the bowls in a traditional round robin toast of greeting and kinship. And punch could be served hot or cold as the season dictated. By now, however, the arrack in the best punches had become more specific, and the best of it was known as Batavia Arrack, an odd combo of rum distilled with fermented Javanese rice. This was obviously close kin to rum but it had a better reputation owing to the Dutch influence (they were instrumental, through their colonizing, in its European introduction) and to it’s use in the trendiest punches. Sophisticates went to great lengths to distinguish their punches from anything containing rumbullion. As with all things, eventually punch’s star declined. This happened as it always does – through the chemical process of bastardization. First, of course, they’d sneak rum in. Just in time for Gin Lane, well looky, it’s a gin punch. And hot whiskey punch was the direct ancestor to the Hot Toddy, Mr. Wondrich posits.

As punch became old-hat, more than just the ingredients were bowdlerized too. The extended-family conviviality of the punch bowl gave way to the greatest outrage of all: the single serving punch. Oh, flasks of brandy, mugs of beer, spiced mugs of hot beer presented with a fireplace poker, were served singly, but punch…punch was the glue that bound society together, and it was coming apart. Religious reactionaries will speak of the dissolution of the nuclear family and point to liberal, evolutionary, immoral, secular ideas as the culprit. Historians and sociologists who are a little more thoughtful nod toward the Industrial Revolution and the tight packing of human beings into steamy terrariums called “cities.”

In fact, it was punch. The dissolution of the family began when punch ceased, in the main, to be shared. The slow, incremental movement of focus from the communal to the individual began here.

The offspring of the single serving punch was, of course, the cocktail.

By the time the first cocktail recipes saw print in 1862, punch still abounded as an also-ran. It became a thing of events, commemorations, and holidays. It has, today, turned into a chimera, inhabiting the silhouette of punch but really being something else, something less. No one takes punch seriously anymore.

The punch I served lucky guests at Casa de Cocktail was a rum punch from the early 19th century that, with slight variations, was christened “Columbian Punch” in 1893 to honor the quadricentennial-plus-one-year of Columbus’ New World frolic. The year-late World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois was the first World’s Fair. The punch was this:

Columbian Punch*

1 quart of Jamaican rum,
1 pint of brandy,
the juice of 2 lemons and 2 oranges,
1 pint of freshly brewed oolong tea,
2 sherry glasses (4 oz.) of green Chartreuse.
Sweeten this mixture to taste,
pour into a large punch bowl,
add ice (a bag of ice from the store is about right)
and pour in a quart of Champagne (750ml is fine)
Stir and ladle.

(*)From “Beverages And Sandwiches For Your Husband’s Friends” by One Who Knows. 1893.

It was a serious punch and a fleeting glimpse at the fine thing punch once was.

Happy multi-belief-system holiday everyone!
The elves are weeping.

Originally published on December 20th, 2005