A Brief History of Punch
by JB & Pink Squirrel PS I Love You

The next time you attend a 50th anniversary party or high school prom, think twice about the glorified Kool-Aid in your Dixie Cup. Punch is not a sweet and demure remnant of prohibition-it's a complex and audacious drink that has been quaffed by sailors, explorers, and patriots (as well as Prom Chaperones) for over four centuries.

It is commonly purported that British sailors "discovered" punch - fully formed - in India in the 16th Century. The drink's name derives from the Hindustani (Hindu) word for "five" (roughly transcribed as panch) referring to the five ingredients that first are alleged to have composed the beverage. As usual with both history and recipes, however, the story has many variations. One source [1] asserts that the five ingredients reflect the five distinct elements necessary in punch, those being sweet, sour, bitter, weak, and alcoholic. The ingredients, then, were sugar, a bitter aperitif, lemon juice, beer, and pure alcohol. A second source [2] called for a rather different recipe, however. In this punch, tea, arrack[3], sugar, lemons, and water were the necessary ingredients. A third source provides the following definition:

[Punch] is commonly supposed to come from the Indian word "panch," the Sanskrit word "panchan" and/or the Persian word "panj"- all meaning five, from the fact that this concoction usually is made with five ingredients. But a long note in the Oxford English Dictionary points out that in the 17th century punch was almost certainly pronounced poonch, as it still is in the north of England, and that this being so, its origin from an Indian source is improbable, especially as the number of ingredients does not seem to have been at any time so fixed as to give origin to a name. Moreover, several early references to the word show that punch was particularly a seaman's drink and it is suggested that the name originated, not in India, but on the way thither and may have been a sailor's shortening of puncheon. Punch now is a beverage composed of wine or spirits with hot water, milk or tea, and flavoured with sugar, lemon, some spice or cordial. Of all the spirits which can excellently be used to make a punch (using the word alone one expects it to be hot; if cold, the word is qualified by iced) rum is the one which comes to the mind of the public. And of all fruits, the lime is the most popular. [4]

The original ingredients and source may be unknown, but what is certain is that punch had made its way to the New World. Punch existed in the U.S. before the U.S. was the U.S. References to punch - in letters, menus, and even government documents - are recorded as early as 1682. It was not only a popular drink by this time but also an essential beverage at any sophisticated social affair. One wonders if those sailors knew demure ladies in ballrooms would be drinking punch for the next four centuries.

That punch was considered something more than the sum of its (theoretically five) parts is apparent in the attention given to the actual physical preparation of the drink. For we moderns who agonize over shaken vs. stirred, there is something mysterious and alchemical in old punch preparations. In 1757, Samuel Mather (son of Cotton Mather), sent to a friend a box of lemons and a bit of doggerel that reads like a magician's incantation:

You know from Eastern India came
The skill of making punch as did the name.
And as the name consists of letters five,
By five ingredients it is kept alive.
To purest water sugar must be joined,
With these the grateful acid is combined.
Some any sours they get contented use,
But men of taste do that from Tagus choose.
When now these three are mixed with care
Then added be of spirit a small share.
And that you may the drink quite perfect see,
Atop the musky nut must grated be. [5]

In Charles Lambs' Last Essays and Popular Fallacie,. Billy Dawson, a "famous" New England punch brewer, echoes Mather's concerns and gives the following ageless advice:

The man who sees, does, or thinks of anything else while he is making Punch may as well look for the Northwest Passage on Mutton Hill. A man can never make good punch unless he is satisfied, nay positive, that no man breathing can make better. I can and do make good Punch, because I do nothing else, and this is my way of doing it. I retire to a solitary corner with my ingredients ready sorted; they are as follows, and I mix them in the order they are here written. Sugar, twelve tolerable lumps; hot water, one pint; lemons, two, the juice and peel; old Jamaica rum, two gills [6]; brandy, one gill; porter or stout, half a gill; arrack, a slight dash. I allow myself five minutes to make a bowl in the foregoing proportions, carefully stirring the mixture as I furnish the ingredients until it actually foams; and then Kangaroos! how beautiful it is! [7]

Kangaroos! And so it is! It just goes to show that under every doily is a Jolly Roger waiting to unfurl. Yo ho ho and pass the damned ladle!

1 "History of Alcohol in America: Punch." http://www.2020site.org/drinks/punch.html Accessed June 24, 2001.
2 "Rogov's Ramblings: Reasons For Drinking. A True But Humorous History of Punch." http://www.stratsplace.com/rogov/history_of_punch.html Accessed June 24, 2001.
3 arrack n. [Ar. araq sweat, juice, spirituous liquor, fr. araqa to sweat. Cf. Rack arrack.] A name in the East Indies and the Indian islands for all ardent spirits. Arrack is often distilled from a fermented mixture of rice, molasses, and palm wine of the cocoanut tree or the date palm, etc. Source: Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, © 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc. Accessed June 25, 2001.
4 "Vintage Direct: Australian Wine Merchants to the World." http://www.nicks.com.au/dictionary/page18.html Accessed June 25, 2001.
5 "History of Alcohol in America: Punch." http://www.2020site.org/drinks/punch.html Accessed June 24, 2001.
6 gill n. Abbr. gi or gi. A unit of volume or capacity in the U.S. Customary System, used in liquid measure, equal to 1/4 of a pint or four ounces (118 milliliters). Source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
7 "History of Alcohol in America: Punch." http://www.2020site.org/drinks/punch.html Accessed June 24, 2001. And, Lamb, Charles. Last Essays and Popular Fallacies. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1898.

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