Let Us Share a Bowl Together – Punch, the Forerunner of the Modern Cocktail
Updated: Feb 26
“A merry Christmas, Bob!” said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you, for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob!” – Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.
Today, when we hear someone speak of Punch, we often think of children’s parties or a non-alcoholic alternative at adult parties. In fact, it would be hard to invoke an image for this drink that was further from its true origins. In today’s post we are going to start the New Year by looking at the origins of the drink and its name. Then we will briefly look at how this became the iconic English drink of the 1700s, and then move on to examine the history of Punch in Colonial America and the Early Republic. Finally, we will share a few recipes from the Colonial and Early Republic eras. So, sit back now and enjoy as we “Share a bowl”.
The common belief around the origin of the word “punch”, describing a bowl containing an alcoholic concoction, is that the word can be traced to the old Hindustani “paunch” meaning five. This, tradition argues, is a reference to the five classes of ingredients in punch recipes: distilled spirits, water, sugar, citrus, and spices. This interpretation seems to be confirmed by the fact that many of the earliest references to Punch are found in the correspondence of the British East India Trading Company’s reports from travelers to their factories (the period word for trading posts) in India. While the consumption of Punch in India does not prove invention there, all the ingredients that go into punch were available there. 1300 years earlier, Alexander the Great had found sugar cane growing there in addition to palm sugar. There was plenty of citrus, arrack (a rum-like beverage distilled from the sap of the coconut palm or red rice), and water – however questionable, and while India produced few spices, they were widely available through trade.
There is, however, another theory as to the origin of the drink. In 1907, the Reverend Charles Bridges Mount, a subeditor of the Oxford English Dictionary, wrote an article challenging the accepted etymology of punch and positing that the first man to make punch was a sailor. The basis of his argument rests on the popularity of the drink among English tars, and the rapidity with which those of other nationalities adopted the formula and its name.
“Sailors of different nationalities, when not fighting each other, are apt to be good comrades. . .. Moreover, they are very ready . . . to pick up from each other words which then become current in the language of those who have taken the words”.
The argument, however, goes much further than that. It goes even to the provisioning of ships. Traditionally, the owners of English ships supplied beer for all and supplemental wine for the “gentlemen”. As voyages became longer in the Elizabethan period, this proved a cumbersome arrangement. First, beer and wine took up a great deal of space with each man’s daily ration of two to four 40oz quarts of beer and the “gentlemen” good for at least half of that in wine. When the East India Company’s first trading mission set sail in 1601, its four ships and 480 men were provided with 30,000 gallons of beer, a like amount of cider, and 15,000 gallons of wine weighing some 420 tons. Considering the capacity of the 4 ships was only 1,160 tons, setting aside over 1/3 of the capacity to alcohol was less than ideal from a financial perspective. The bulk was not the only problem. Before pasteurization, it was hard enough to keep beer from going bad when stored in a cool, dry cellar but sloshing around in a ship’s bilge was asking too much. Beer and wine often went bad before the ships cleared the Canary Islands.
In any case, by 1600, long-haul English voyagers were carrying lots of distilled spirits. As far as the citrus goes, although it was not until the 19th Century that the Royal Navy stamped out scurvy by universal rations of lime juice, the Elizabethans had known that citrus was a sure cure. James Lancaster, leader of the East India Company’s first fleet, not only provisioned his ships with bottled lemon juice, but stopped often for more lemons and oranges, even going so far as to retrace part of his route when he had run out. In 1617, John Woodall, Surgeon General for the East India Company, prescribed taking two or three spoonsful of lemon juice, mixed with one spoonful of aqua vitae against the scurvy. It is possible that they sweetened this with sugar since the East India men carried plenty of sugar and obtained more when they could. Even the spices were available; Lancaster shipped 50 pounds of assorted cloves, cinnamon, and nutmegs for use during the voyage. Indeed, Admiral Vernon, in the 1740 order directing that his sailors daily ration of a half-pint of rum, brandy, or arrack be mixed with a quart of water before issue, came close to making it official by also adding that “they that are good husbandmen may …purchase sugar and limes” to make the result “more palatable to them. So, what is the origin of punch? We leave that up to each of our readers to make their own personal decision on that. The thing is it doesn’t really matter whether punch originated in India or with sailors, the important thing is that it arrived in England, and then spread from there abroad, even to her colonies.
With English sailors returning from Eastern voyages with little else but the memories of drinking punch, it quickly became associated sailors just as much as weevils, wenches, and dysentery. By the middle of the 17th century however, punch had spread from the docks into mainstream society. As punch spread into “civilized” society, the formulation began to change to cater to various tastes. Brandy, sweet wine, whole egg, cream, and a crack of nutmeg (if you could afford it) altered your classic five ingredients into a punch referred to as a Fillip (or Flip). There was also milk punch, punch-royal, chambermaid’s punch, brandy punch, and the Regency classics, Negus and Smoking Bishop. All of these, while substituting different ingredients, used a base of sweet, fortified wine referred to as sack, port, brandy, or madeira (another fortified wine).
By the 18th century, the rough and tumble tavern of old had given way to the more learned environment of the coffee house where punch found a new home in the middle classes. These venues became the hangouts for many famous artists, politicians, and poets of the time, with Gentlemen meeting there to “share a bowl” and talk politics, business, and the latest ideas from the Enlightenment. By the mid-18th century, punch had truly arrived, and everyone was drinking it; not only in England, but also in the young English colonies soon to declare their American independence.
In North America
Although it is relatively certain that punch made its appearance in England’s North American colonies sometime in the 1600s, the earliest documented references I could find to drinking punch in North America come from the 1730s. In 1732, when William Byrd II of Virginia went to visit Col Spotswood he wrote in his journal:
“At night we drank prosperity to all the colonel’s projects in a bowl of rack punch, and then retired to our devotions.”
Another 1730s reference to punch, and an example of how prized it was in Virginia, comes from the unpublished biography of Peter Jefferson Thomas Jefferson's father) by Edward Hickish. In 1736, when Virginian William Randolph bought a 2400-acre tract of Crown land that happened to include a parcel his friend Peter Jefferson had his eye on. He agreed to sell Jefferson 200 acres of it for ₤50 and another 200 acres in return for, according to the deed, “Henry Weatherbornes’s biggest bowl of arrack punch to him delivered”.
Once here, punch seems to have spread rapidly throughout the colonies. In Manhattan, a group of poor whites and African slaves plotted with a white alehouse keeper to burn New York and slaughter its inhabitants – an abortive uprising known as the New York Conspiracy of 1741 that resulted in the execution of over 100 slaves and poor whites. Testimony from the court proceedings shows the plot hatched over bowls of punch. And in 1744, when Dr. Alexander Hamilton of Maryland, not the future Secretary of the Treasury, took a trip for his health to Maine and back, he found his fellow colonials drinking punch quite liberally in just about every town he visited.
During most of the eighteenth century, gentlemen often drank with working men whose economic status was less than that of their own and often treated these working men to drinks or a bowl of punch following a political election or horse race. An entry in the diary of William Black, Secretary to the Commissioners appointed by Governor Gooch of Virginia to Treat with the Six Nations (Iroquois), illustrates the amount of alcohol that the average colonial citizen could drink each day. On a trip to Philadelphia in 1744, Black was served:
“. . . cider and punch for lunch; rum and brandy before dinner; punch, Madeira, port and sherry at dinner, punch and liqueurs, with the ladies; and wine, spirit and punch till bedtime; all in punch bowls big enough for a goose to swim in.”
Punch was served in homes, taverns, and inns and it also played a key role in public celebrations. In 1754, to celebrate Lord Baltimore’s 23rd birthday, they held a ball, cannon fire, a bonfire on the Baltimore Common, and punch distributed to “the Populace”. In 1766 Philadelphians honored George III’s 28th birthday, providing the public with “Rum, Sugar, and Water, to make Punch”.
Punch quickly made its way, beyond celebrating victories, into politics in America. When George Washington stood for election to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1757, he stood on principle and refused to supply the customary free punch at his campaign rallies. Three candidates ran for the two Frederick County seats in the House of Burgesses, the top two each won about 46 percent of the vote and were thus elected. Washington failed miserably, garnering only seven percent of the vote. (This was the only election Washington ever lost.) When he ran again the following year, Washington and his agents doled out 28 gallons of rum, 50 gallons of rum punch, 46 gallons of beer, 34 gallons of wine and 2 gallons of hard cider. He received the most votes of any of the contenders.
Punch would also help to fuel the American Revolution. In January of 1766, John Adams met with a small group of men, known as the “Loyal Nine” who would go on to be influential in the Sons of Liberty. He reported, “I was very cordially and respectfully treated by all present. We had punch, wine, pipes and tobacco, biscuit and cheese, etc. They chose a committee to make preparation for a grand rejoicing upon the arrival of the news of the repeal of the stamp act.”
Even after Adams became America’s 2nd President, Punch continued to play a part in his life. Although John Adams was not known for his social graces, he made visitors to the Presidential Mansion at 190 High Street in Philadelphia (now 524-530 Market Street) welcome with punch and other refreshments as he reports in a letter to his wife dated January 1, 1799.
“We have had more Company to Day than ever upon any Occasion. Thirty or forty Gallons of Punch, Wine in Proportion: and Cake in Abundance”.
The Church, in the Colonial and Early Republic era did not play a strong role in suppressing the alcohol traffic or in discouraging drinking among its members. Alcohol was a part of most church functions, and excessive drinking was common at weddings, funerals, and church council meetings. One of the days in the life of the church most strongly associated with alcohol consumption was ordination day. We can see the extent of drinking at this time in a bill for the ordination of Rev. Joseph McKean of Beverly, Massachusetts in 1785. The bill included charges for:
“30 bowls of punch and 10 bottles of wine before the meeting, 44 bowls of punch at the dinner, 18 bottles of wine, 8 bowls of Brandy”
By the time of the Madison administration although punch was beginning to fall out of favor in lieu of the newly invented “cocktail”, we find it appearing in a description of one of Dolly Madison’s Wednesday drawing rooms.
“After guests had greeted the President and his wife, they moved to the dining room, where the table was piled high, mostly with sweets, including Mrs. Madison’s favorite, ice cream inside a baked pastry shell. Coffee and wine were passed, and for the guest who wanted something stronger, there was a bracing whiskey punch”.
Although punch had begun to fall out of favor by the time of the Madison Administration, it continued to be a significant drink for social occasions on up into the late 1800s.
What follows are some historic recipes for punch. I have listed them in chronological order so that one can see the progression of punch development. One thing that is interesting to note is that somewhere around the early years of the 18th Century the number of ingredient “classes” began to change from five (distilled spirits, water, sugar, citrus, and spices) to four (distilled spirits, water, sugar, and citrus or some other liquid mixer).
The “Four Pillars” of Making Punch
As David Wonderich mentioned in his book, “Punch, the delights and dangers of the flowing bowl,” toward the end of the Punch Age, most people making Punch were only doing so occasionally and thus did not have the skill and knowledge of their predecessors. As a result, magazines and books began to publish “tips” and instructions refining the basic techniques of just throwing everything together in a bowl. These came down to four primary areas, or pillars, of making good Punch: handling of the citrus oil, handling the citrus juice, the order of assembly, and the proportions of the ingredients.
Pillar 1: the oleo-saccharum (a pharmaceutical term for oil-sugar). To deliver the best and most complex flavors to the Punch one needs to extract the citrus oils for inclusion into the concoction. These oils, contained in the skin of the citrus, add a fragrance and depth that marks a truly excellent Punch. The easiest, and best, way to incorporate this oil in Punch is to extract it with sugar. While the old-school way of preparing the oleo-saccharum is to rub lumps of sugar on the rind of the citrus, most of us today do not get our sugar in cones where we need to “nip off” lumps.
By far, the most effective modern method is to peel the fruit with a sharp, swivel bladed vegetable peeler, trying to get as little of the white pith as possible with the peel. These are then muddled firmly in a sturdy bowl along with two ounces of sugar per citrus fruit peeled, and then left to sit in a warm place for at least a half of an hour, and preferably twice that. During that time, if the peels are fresh, the sugar will draw out an impressive amount of oil. After muddling the peels again, to incorporate the citrus oil, remove the peels and the sugar is ready for use.
Pillar 2: the shrub (the mixture of sugar and citrus juice). This is the stage where the punch maker incorporates the oleo-saccharum and the citrus juice, sometimes with the addition of a little water, if needed, to dissolve the sugar. To add additional flavor, the citrus juice should be strained before incorporation with the sugar, and then the pulp, seeds and other solids have a little bit of hot water run over them to extract any additional flavor.
Pillar 3: the order of assembly. Especially during the Regency Era, this was a subject of great debate. One line of thought stated that: “In making hot toddy or hot punch, you must put in the spirits before the water: in cold punch, grog, &c., the other way.” The reasoning behind this seems to be that sugar does not dissolve well in spirits unless they are hot and, hot Punch should be as hot as possible so if you add the water first, will cool it will cool as you stir to dissolve the sugar. There were others who disagreed with this. Perhaps the best solution is one suggested by Dr. Gustave Louis Maurice Strauss which is to put in some water (hot or cold, depending on how the Punch will be served) with the sugar and citrus juice to dissolve it, then add the spirits, and then the remaining water.
Pillar 4: the proportions. Are they “Two of sour, and one of sweet, / One of strong, and two of weak” as suggested by one writer in 1756, or is the Caribbean suggestion from around 1844 of One of sour, two of sweet, / Three of strong, four of weak”? In 1851 it was amended to “Two of strong and one of weak, / One of sour and one of sweet”. Lemons and limes vary in acidity, sugar varies in sweetness by kind, and spirits vary in proof so one could argue that it is not possible to make a general rule. It is at this point where David Wonderich steps in to suggest the following proportions.
“One of sour, one of sweet, / Four of strong and six of weak. Whatever proportions you use, though, remember that you’ll have to put more sugar in than you would in a cocktail, because the sugar has to not only balance out the sourness of the citrus juice but add texture to all that water as well.”
DOCTOR SALMON’S PUNCH (CA. 1695)
This is a simple, early recipe for Brandy Punch that appeared in The Husbandman’s Jewel a 1695 collection of remedies, recipes, etc. The “Salmon” referred to is almost certainly Dr. William Salmon a self-taught London doctor. The original recipe reads as follows:
“Take two Quarts of Water, one Pint of Lime Juice, three quarters of a Pound of fine Sugar, mix and dissolve the Sugar, then put three Pints of choice Brandy; stir them well together, and grate in a Nutmeg. This Liquor cheers the Heart, and revives the Spirits beyond any other Liquor, Moderately drunk it helps Digestion, restores lost Appetite, and makes the Body profoundly Healthful, and able to resist the assaults or all Diseases.”
Ingredients: 64 oz. water 16 oz. lime juice 12 oz. sugar 48 oz. brandy 1 nutmeg
To Make Punch
Take two Quarts of Water, one Pint of Lime Juice, three quarters of a Pound of fine Sugar, mix and dissolve the sugar, then put three Pints of choice Brandy; stir them well together, and grate in a Nutmeg. (Yield – 16 cups)
Note: If you do not have a great tolerance for sour things, you may need to increase the sugar to 1lb or decrease the lime juice to 12 oz
JAMES ASHLEY’S PUNCH (CA. 1740)
In 1731, James Ashley opened the London Coffee-House and Punch-House next to the old medieval gate on Ludgate Hill. Ashley was no ordinary punch-maker. In fact, he would become renowned for compounding and selling punch. Among those who drank in his establishment were the artist William Hogarth, James Boswell, playwright Oliver Goldsmith, and Benjamin Franklin and his “Club of Honest Whigs”. Ashley is best known for reducing the price of punch: the accepted price in London was eight shillings for a quart of arrack made into Punch and six shillings for the same of brandy or rum. Ashley reduced these prices to six and four shillings, respectively. He also sold his punch by the glass for 3 to 4 and a half pence.
Unfortunately, no record exists of the exact recipe used by Mr. Ashley, or his barkeeper Mrs. Gaywood used to make his punch. As such, we must guess as to the original recipe. However, Mr. Wonderich once again comes through with a suggested method, based upon his study of period Punches and a bit of experimentation.
For a four-shilling bowl, prepare an oleo-saccharum with the peel of four Seville (or sour) oranges and a cup of light, raw sugar (such as Turbinado sugar). Add 16 oz of hot water and stir to dissolve the sugar. Add 8 oz of strained Seville orange (or other sour orange) juice and stir. Add enough water to bring this up to a full quart. Pour into a clean bottle, seal, and refrigerate.
To serve, pour a quart of this “shrub” (also called “sherbet”); a quart of proof-strength (i.e. around 57 percent alcohol by volume) VS-grade cognac or Jamaican Rum; and a quart of cold water into a bowl and grate nutmeg over the top. This is enough for a three-quart bowl.
Note: if you wish to bring this closer to the 18th century version, you must compensate for the understrength (by 18th century standards) Brandy we usually get today. To do this simply use 44 oz of cognac and cut the added cold water back to 20 oz. The water that is added at the end, whether the quart or 20 oz may be boiling if you wish to serve this Punch hot.
PHILADELPHIA FISH-HOUSE PUNCH (ca. 1795)
In our mid-July 2020 post about Gentlemen’s Clubs in Colonial and Early America, we discussed the Schuylkill Fishing Club and their legendary Philadelphia Fish-House Punch. Some claim that the club has made this punch since the founding in the 1730s. We do see it mentioned regarding a visit by William Black, in 1744. According to legend, George Washington drank so much of the potent mixture while there for the Constitutional Convention that he could not make an entry in his diary for three days!
The recipe that we are going to use as an “original" was found written on a piece of paper stuck between the pages of A History of the Schuylkill Fishing Club, currently in the possession of Charles G. Leland, Esq. a member of the Schuylkill Fishing Club)
1/3 of a pint of Lemon Juice
¾ pound of White Sugar
2½ pints of cold water
¼ Pint of Peach Brandy
½ Pint of Cognac Brandy
¼ pint of Jamaica Rum
The above is sufficient for one person
For the modern partygoer, the quantity listed may be a bit much for one person. The best solution, once again according to Wonderich, is to triple the recipe – 1 pint of lemon juice, 1 lb. or a little more of Demerara Sugar, 3 oz of Peach Brandy, 27 oz of cognac, 18 oz of Rum, and 3 quarts of water. This should serve 12-15 safely.
Before juicing the lemons, make an oleo-saccharum using the peels of 3 of the lemons and the sugar. Heat 1 pint of water to boiling and add it to the bowl, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Fish out the lemon peels, add the lemon juice, the liquor, and the rest of the water. Let this cool in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 hours., add a block of ice and serve.
RICHMOND QUOIT CLUB PUNCH (CA. 1820)
Founded in 1788, the thirty members of the Richmond Quoit Club met every other Saturday, from May until October, to throw the heavy ring-like quoits at posts, eat barbecue, and drink this Punch, in addition to other beverages. The club’s most famous member, and one of its founders, was John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States from 1801 until 1835. The following recipe came from an old Virginia gentleman:
“lemons, brandy, rum, madeira poured into a bowl one third filled with ice (no water) and sweetened”.
Notice that this recipe, like many other early Punch recipes, does not specify quantities but depends on the skill and judgement of the maker to work that out. The Richmond Light Infantry Blues used this same recipe for years.
12 lemons 2 cups sugar 16 oz of strained lemon juice (juiced from the peeled lemons) 750 ml Jamaican rum 750 ml VSOP Cognac brandy 750 ml rainwater Madeira Ice
To Make Punch
Prepare and oleo-saccharum of the peel of twelve lemons and two cups of light raw sugar (Turbinado or something similar). Add 16 oz of strained lemon juice and stir until the sugar fully dissolves. Add one 750 ml bottle each of Jamaican Rum, VSOP cognac, and Rainwater Madeira. Stir well and pour into a punch bowl filled 1/3 of the way with ice cubes. Stir and let stand 20 minutes before serving.
We hope you found this article on Punch in Colonial America and the Early Republic both informative and entertaining. With Twelfth Night just around the corner we hope you will give one or more of these recipes a try and let us know what you think. If Twelfth Night is not convenient, then try them at one of your future celebrations once the current pandemic situation subsides.
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Cheney, Lynne. James Madison: A Life Reconsidered. New York: Penguin, 2014.
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Hickish, Edgar Charles. Peter Jefferson, Gentleman. University of Virginia Library, Special Collections, ca. 1949. June 2014.
Horsmanden, Justice Daniel. A Journal of the Proceedings in the Detection of the Conspiracy. New York, 1744.
Markham, Gervase. The Husbandman's Jewel, directing how to improve land from 10 £ per annum to 50 £ . . . London: G. Conyers, 1695. Web. 27 November 2020. <http://name.umdl.umich.edu/A45229.0001.001>.
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Rawlings, Mary. The Albemarle of Other Days. Charlottesville: The Michie Company, 1925.
Taussig, Charles William. Rum, Romance, & Rebellion. London: Jarrolds Publishers, 1928.
Wondrich, David. Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl. New York: Penguin Group, 2010.