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Chapter 4: The Age of Punch
In a way, despite their isolation, those early India factors were lucky. What with civil war, regicide, religious dictatorship, two naval wars with the Dutch and a plague that killed one hundred thousand Londoners and was only extinguished by a fire that consumed most of the city, the folks back home in England didn't get a lot of enjoyment out of the middle parts of the seventeenth century. Fortunately, this being a drink book, we can skip over most of the fear, pain, and drama and concentrate on the carousing with which an often intolerable existence was solaced. On January 30, 1649, King Charles I laid his head on a Whitehall chopping block. Then came democracy, of a sort, and then Puritan dictatorship, during which conviviality was, officially, next to rascality. But on May 29, 1660, with the monarchy restored, King Charles II entered London in triumph. As he wound his way through the city's ancient streets, the fountains literally flowed with wine. Conviviality was restored.
The very next day, however, Charles issued a proclamation against the "vicious, debauch'd, and profane Persons... who spend their Time in Taverns, Tippling-Houses, and Debauches, giving no other Evidence of their Affection to us but in drinking our health, and inveighing against all others who are not of their own dissolute Temper." True, many of the king's supporters had in fact been using the toasting of his health as a rather shabby on-the-fly loyalty test: drink up, and you were a good Royalist; decline, and you were some sort of Puritan Roundhead and not to be trusted. But there was no dearth of people who would toast him even without coercion: life under Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans had been dreary, what with alehouses and taverns being viewed with official suspicion, sports and games of any and all sorts suppressed, and theaters shut down; and if public morals had slipped a bit in the two years since Cromwell's death, things were still rather glum. With a Charles back in charge, they would take a decided turn for the merrier, grumpy royal proclamations or no.
Then again, it's hard to believe that even Charles took that proclamation seriously. If one had to pick a theme for his reign, one could do no better than that conviviality (at least until the very end, when it devolved into a tedious web of cabals, plots, counterplots and executions). The theaters were open, the games were afoot, and the alehouses, inns and taverns were full. A moderate drinker himself, for the most part (we all get ahead of ourselves every now and then), Charles presided over a court that—well, one would have had to scour the kingdom most thoroughly to find a group to whom "vicious, debauch'd, and profane" better applied. They were rakes, roisterers and alcoholics—and, for that matter, duelists, bride abductors, exhibitionists, atheists and poets (indeed, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, combined all of those things and more). What they were not, however, were Punch-drinkers, at least not at first. Being gentlemen, they drank wine. Being English, they also drank beer and ale. The latter was no doubt of a stronger and better grade than what their fellow countrymen who made up the London mob were drinking, but if those at the lower reaches of society were deprived of alcohol, it wasn't for long. Before the decade was out, they would discover spirits.
After the Second Anglo-Dutch War ended in 1667, as Daniel Defoe, a schoolboy at the time, would recall in 1727: "Suddenly... we began to abound in Strong Water-Shops. These were a sort of petty Distillers, who made up... Compound Waters from such mixt and confus'd Trash, as they could get to work from." The trash was familiar: sour or salt-water-damaged wines, "Lees and Bottoms," cider dregs, "damag'd sugars," and so forth. The resulting aqua vitae was then flavored, cheaply, with aniseed or juniper and hawked from "bulks" (shop windows) and market stalls or "by street vendors crying ‘A dram of the bottle.'"
Whatever their quality, spirits sales in England soared: by 1684, they were topping half a million gallons a year. The causes for this increase could have been as complex as post revolutionary disorientation and the rootlessness brought on by out-of-control urbanization or as simple as the high excise taxes that Cromwell's Parliament had imposed on beer and ale and Charles's had retained and extended. But whatever they were, they didn't just affect the urban rabble, the alehouse classes. Before long, the drinking life of the tavern goer would change as well.
By the time Charles took the throne, Punch had spread far beyond its South Asian cradle. Its earliest appearance elsewhere comes in the often-cited account of the new English colony of Barbados written by Richard Ligon, who was there from 1647 to 1650. Whatever his good qualities, and I'm sure they are many, when it came to Punch, either he got his notes a little mixed up or those early Bajans had picked up the name but not the drink that came with it. In any case, he described it as simply fermented sugar water—"very strong, and fit for labourers." Between Ligon's years in Barbados and the Restoration, the fortunes of Punch in the West are obscure. In early 1668, however, William Willoughby, the aristocratic governor of Barbados and the Leeward Islands, reporting to London on the typically unruly state of affairs in the English Caribbean, described his intention to place affairs in St. Kitts in the hands of one Colonel Lambert. With half the island being a French colony, they took some management. Fortunately, quoth Willoughby, Lambert "is a man of good reason, and at a bowl of punch I dare turn him loose to any Monsieur in the Indies." If English colonels and French monsieurs could drink Punch together, one may assume that by then the drink was both well established and, to some degree, socially acceptable in the Caribbean colonies. By then, Punch-drinking had spread to the North American colonies as well, and not only among the servants.
We know this from, among other things, the lengthy tab John Parker ran up between May 1670 and February 1671 at John Richardson's Talbot County, Maryland, "ordinary."4 Scattered among all the charges for beer and mum and rum and brandy are entries for a total of thirteen and a half "Bowles of Punch," at sixty or eighty pounds of tobacco—the local currency—each, depending on what it was made from. Clearly, Parker was no servant—any man who could afford to spend more than eight hundred pounds of tobacco on Punch was not, in that time and place, socially negligible. Things in Maryland would only get worse: by 1708, Ebenezer Cook could write in his satirical but not inaccurate epic The Sot-Weed Factor about how, arriving in that same part of the colony, "A Herd of Planters on the ground / O'er-whelmed with Punch, dead drunk we found."
It's unclear exactly who brought Punch-drinking to the West Indies and North America, but since English sailors were customarily dismissed from their ships between voyages and had to find new ones, many of those who manned the vessels that serviced the new western colonies would have had East India Company experience. In any case, the Spanish had conveniently planted the islands of the Caribbean with sugarcane and citrus trees, so there was no dearth of raw materials with which to work, and plenty of motivation in the form of lousy beer (for various reasons, it took some time to establish a viable brewing industry in America) and expensive wine. In any case, Punch-drinking spread rapidly, and by the turn of the eighteenth century, it was near universal in the colonies.
By that time, though, Punch had conquered the mother country as well. There, at least, we know how the campaign began. The earliest reference to drinking Punch on English soil I've been able to discover comes from the diarist and author John Evelyn, who was well connected and deeply involved in naval affairs. On the sixteenth of January 1662, he accompanied the Duke of York to "an East India vessel that lay at Black Wall." Evidently the ship's officers laid out something of a spread, company style. "We had entertainment of several curiosities," Evelyn recorded. "Amongst other spirituous drinks, as punch, &c., they gave us Canarie that had been carried to and brought from the Indies." True to his class, he found the Punch curious, but it was the Canary wine that "was indeed incomparably good." Significantly, the new drink makes no appearance in the diary that Evelyn's friend Samuel Pepys, almost as well connected and even more deeply involved in naval affairs, so famously kept from 1660 to 1669. Pepys was a curious and wideranging tippler and a conscientious observer; if the London gentry had adopted Punch, he would have recorded it—just as he had done for so many other drinks. It's difficult to think of someone who would have enjoyed it more. Indeed, he might have had the chance to become one of its early adopters, if only Christopher Batters hadn't liked it quite so much.
A navy gunner "born and bred to the sea," as Pepys remembered him, who managed to work his way up to captaining his own ship, Batters considered Pepys his patron (Pepys, alas, considered him a "foole" and "a poor painful wretch . . . as can be"). On December 17, 1666, he put in to London to dispose of the cargo of a Dutch "fish dogger" (i.e., cod boat) he had taken. After seeing his patron, he went back aboard his ship, the Joseph, in the company of "one Allen, a fishmonger," to whom he sold his cargo for ten pounds. There was Punch, to seal the deal. We know that because he was overheard telling Allen that "if he drank any more Punch he should tell two shillings for one." The next morning, he was found floating in the Thames, still with his gold signet ring but with his pocket cut open and minus the sash in which he was reputed to keep fifty pounds in gold. By the time they held an inquest (most likely at Pepys's prompting), the fishmonger was nowhere to be found. "A sad fortune," quoth Pepys.5 Who knows—had he taken on board a little less Punch that night, Batters might have survived to introduce Pepys to the joys of the flowing bowl. Pepys got there eventually, as a September 1683 entry from one of his fragmentary later diaries proves, but by that stage in life he was rather more sedate an individual and seems to have been little amused by the new beverage.
But in the 1660s, some landlubbers, anyway, must have known about Punch because it turns up in a list of drinks in Poor Robin's Jests, a 1666 joke book, and again the next year in The Spightful Sister, a rather confused tragicomedy written by the teenaged Abraham Bailey in time he should probably have devoted to his legal studies (he couldn't get it staged, and he never wrote another). In 1670, the pioneering cookbook writer Hannah Wooley even gives us an actual recipe, complete with proportions and all, in her book The Queen-Like Closet, or Rich Cabinet. Over the next decade, Punch would become firmly established ashore, ending up as what the sporty young gentleman would drink when he joined his friends on a spree.
Yet as happens so often with mixography, just when we would like the most light we're granted the least. During those crucial ten years (if I may use a word as serious as "crucial" in connection with something so fundamentally frivolous as the art of mixing drinks), the only times Punch makes it into the written record it's still sporting its sailor suit. If it's not physicians praising it for its antiscorbutic powers, it's drinks writers acknowledging it as something "very usual amongst those that frequent the sea"—an observation amply borne out by the diary of Henry Teonge, a Warwickshire parson who joined the HMS Assistance as ship's chaplain in 1675 and found it flowing "like ditchwater," the officers going through several bowls of it a day. But that's pretty much it. Then, in 1680, Alexander Radcliffe, a young man-about-town who clearly espoused the thenpopular principle that "nulla manere diu neque vivere carmina possunt quae scribuntur aquae potoribus," which is to say "no poems written by water-drinkers are likely to last," published a broadsheet titled Bacchanalia Coelestia: A Poem in Praise of Punch. In it, he has the Roman gods gather in heaven to assemble a bowl of the new drink, since, as Jupiter says, "We're inform'd they drink Punch upon Earth, / By which mortal Wights outdo us in mirth." It's not much as far as poetry goes, although plenty worse has been published. But its very existence tells us that something major has happened in the perception of Punch, for though Radcliffe was a captain, it was in the army, not the navy, and his connections were with the royal court and the dissolute wits associated with it, not the diligent moneymakers of the East India Company. If Radcliffe, a poetical protégé of the Earl of Rochester, knew Punch, Rochester knew it; if Rochester knew it, every whore and rake and freethinking young gent in town knew it.
Ironically, Punch, the Great Intoxicator, seems to have ridden into town on the back of the ensobering coffee bean. I won't delve into the history of coffee and tea in England, as fascinating as they might be in their quiet way. But the first coffeehouses began opening in the 1650s, in Oxford; by the 1660s, whether due to interest in the novelty of a stimulating drink that did not intoxicate or a conviction that if something is in Oxford then it certainly must be in London, they were all over the metropolis, too. From the beginning, coffeehouses took on a character of their own. For one thing, they charged admission: to enter, you had to pay a penny, then not a negligible sum. That penny let you read the various newspapers, pamphlets, broadsheets and ballads that were the coffeehouse's other great attraction (the tangled, bitter politics of the day threw off a lot of print). Or you could just join the general conversation that flowed freely and often heatedly among the various tables. It wouldn't be entirely wrong to compare them to modern online discussion groups such as MetaFilter or Free Republic, except with the possibility of actual fisticuffs should the snark get out of hand. In any case, they were something entirely new in the way that they brought together the more progressive young aristocrats and the more cosmopolitan members of the commercial classes, in a setting where if not the only then at least the chief currency was wit.
There were those who frequented coffeehouses for that wit but who didn't much care for the "soot-coloured ninny-broth" (as the Grub Street satirist Ned Ward called it) that went with it. Even hipsters like to get their drink on. Yet ale wasn't quite the thing— not aspirational enough—although at first many coffeehouses served it anyway, faute de mieux, since the tavern licenses that would allow wine were scarce and expensive. But anyone with a coffeehouse license could sell spirits—then just at the beginning of their Recreational phase in England and hence largely unregulated—if he could persuade his patrons to drink them. John Dryden, the pugnacious poet laureate, signaled the eventual solution to that problem in a set of verses he wrote in 1691 on the legendary Will's CoffeeHouse, where he had been the head-wit-in-charge (so to speak) since it opened in 1660. In them, he portrays William Urwin, the house's proprietor, with "nutmeg, spoon and garter" [i.e., grater], all necessary accessories for Punch-making. And indeed by then Punch had become the standard coffeehouse antidote to all that caffeine. In fact, many a coffeehouse—such as the Little Devil in Goodman's Fields, lauded by Ward for its Punch in his 1700 masterwork of literary lowlife, The London Spy—was one in name only.
Yet it's unclear precisely how or when coffeehouses learned the utility of Punch; if history recorded which of them was the first to give the flowing bowl safe harbor and when that happened, I haven't been able to find where. It seems to have taken a little while: the satirical 1673 pamphlet A Character of a Coffee House lists, for the "Hodge Podge of Drinks" typically served, the "hot Hell-Broth" coffee, tea and chocolate (all three recent imports), plus "Betony and Rosade [a sort of herbal tea] for the addle-headed Customer," cider, mum and ale. If Punch had been in common use, the opportunity to hit at trumped-up would-be wits for fuddling themselves with a low sailor's tipple would have been too tempting to pass up.
Or maybe not: one of the factors that must have hastened Punch's adoption in England was the high standing in which the navy stood, and not just because the king's brother was Lord High Admiral. Unlike the army, which was deeply implicated in the dark deeds of the Civil War, the navy was seen as England's defender, pure and simple, and sailors themselves as stout, if rough, primitives with hearts of oak. (And besides, they were making England rich.) Well into the nineteenth century, a popular upper-class expression of patriotism was to gather a party to visit a navy ship at dock and drink Punch with the sailors. In 1732, even Alexander Pope, the great poet of the age, participated in the ritual, answering Lord Peterborough's invitation with the stirring words, "I decline no Danger where the Glory of Great Britain is concern'd and will contribute to empty the largest Bowl of Punch that shall be rigg'd out on such an Occasion." It's a wonder it didn't kill him, sickly as he was with the chronic tuberculosis that had so stunted and twisted his bones that he was barely four and a half feet tall. Such things had been known to happen: the Calendar of State Papers for November 8, 1692, records that "One Mr. Hele, a gentleman of Devonshire, went on board the Rupert at Plymouth, and drinking too freely of punch he fell asleep and never waked."
The spread of Punch-drinking couldn't have been hurt by Parliament's 1678 ban on the importation of French wines. This regulation was as much an attempt to buck up the fledgling wine trade with Portugal as it was a hit at France and its troublesome monarch, Louis XIV, but since the Portuguese, the most temperate of people, barely drank wine themselves and when they did cared little about its quality (it would take generations to create the magnificence that is port), it resulted mostly in more smuggling and spiritsdrinking in England. As in turn did the various measures passed under William III—the genever-drinking Dutchman who was given the English throne in 1688 after Charles's brother James, who succeeded him in 1685, unacceptably produced a Catholic heir—to restrict the very large wine and brandy trade with France, now an open enemy, and bulk up English grain-distilling.
The moment of transition was captured perfectly by the spectacularly alluring figure of Mrs. Aphra Behn—author, spy, courtesan, wit and mixologist (we'll get to that last part in Book III)—in her play The Widow Ranter, published posthumously in 1690. Set in Virginia, it features in the very first scene a country justice of the peace "sick" from having been drunk the night before on "high Burgundy Claret." Hearing this, his tippling companion wonders aloud "how the gentlemen do drink" that "Paulter Liquor, your English French wine." "Ay so do I," replies our over-hung J.P.:
'tis for want of a little Virginia Breeding: how much more like a Gentleman 'tis, to drink as we do, brave Edifying Punch and Brandy,—but they say the young Noble-men now and Sparks in England begin to reform, and take it for their mornings.
Although Mrs. Behn was barred by her sex from participating in the strictly stag coffeehouse culture, she nonetheless maintained a wide acquaintance among the wits (the prologue to The Widow Ranter was supplied by no less than Dryden himself). If drinking Punch was still low enough to satirize, it must have at least been common enough for the jab to tell.6
By 1690, Punch-drinking had also followed the roads out of London and taken root deep in the countryside. In 1675, when Henry Teonge joined his ship fresh from rural Warwickshire, he had pronounced the Punch of which he shared three bowls on his first night afloat "a Liquor very strange to me." Ten years later, they had even heard of it in farthest Yorkshire, judging by the fact that George Meriton included it in the locally printed booklet of verses he wrote in praise of Yorkshire ale. Not that rural Punch-tippling didn't have its problems, as Thomas Brown, one of Dryden's verbal sparring partners, who found himself marooned in Hertfordshire, complained in a characteristically amusing 1692 letter on the inconveniences of country life:
The Wine, in those few Places where we find it, is so intolerably bad, that tho' 'tis good for nothing else, 'tis a better Argument for Sobriety, than what all the Volumes of Morality can afford... Where this sorry Stuff is not to be had, we are forc'd, in our own Defence, to take up with Punch, but the Ingredients are as long a summoning, as a Colonel would be recruiting his Regiment... We must send to a Market-Town five miles off for Sugar and Nutmeg, and five miles beyond that for rotten Lemons. Water it self is not to be had without travelling a League for it, and an unsanctify'd Kettle supplies the Place of a Bowl. Then when we have mix'd all these noble Ingredients, which, generally speaking, are as bad as those the Witches in Mackbeth jumble together to make a Charm, we fall to contentedly, and sport off an Afternoon. 'Tis true, our Heads suffer for it next Morning, but what is that to an old Soldier? We air our selves next Morning on the Common, and the Sin and the Pain are forgotten together.
Reluctantly or not, the tavern class had learned to drink Punch, and it would take it another century and a half to relinquish the sport and the sin and the pain of it.
Thus arrived the Age of Punch. In 1700, Ned Ward could opine in prose that Punch "if composed of good ingredients, and prepared with true judgment, exceeds all the simple [i.e., straight, unmixed], potable products in the universe" and in verse that "Had our forefathers but thy virtues known, / Their foggy ale to lubbers they'd have thrown." As long as there were lubbers—that is, bumpkins—to keep ale alive, its triumph was not complete, but Punch did cast many of the other traditional compound drinks of Olde Englande, those turbid, egg-rich brews based on ale and wine, into the outer darkness, where is wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Over time, the informal associations that the coffeehouses encouraged hardened into formal clubs made up of like-minded men who agreed to meet at a fixed time and venue and follow certain loose rules. Not all clubs drank Punch, but most did, and since the majority of them favored the Whigs—the (semi) progressive element in English politics and the one that supported William III against his Tory and Jacobite (i.e., loyal to the deposed James II) opponents—Punch became something of a Whig drink. In 1695, when William III visited Warwick Castle, "a cistern containing a hundred and twenty gallons of punch was emptied to his Majesty's health," as one contemporary history recorded. Clearly, in a time when Whiggishness was triumphant that association did nothing to impair Punch's popularity. If the Tories, not at all progressive, stuck for a time to the traditional French wines of the English gentry, paying exorbitantly for smuggled goods when necessary, eventually they, too, would yield to the attraction of the "flowing bowl" (a phrase that was already proverbial when Matthew Prior used it in one of his poems in 1718).
Ultimately, people will drink what they will drink, politics be damned. Ned Ward, for one, was a Tory, and when he tired of Grub Street, he opened a Punch house of his own. But even if you agreed with Bishop Hoadley's then-notorious polemic on the theme "Christ's Kingdom is not of this world" and eschewed the vulgar money-getting and party politics of the day in favor of laying up capital for the next world, you could still partake. Henry Fielding's prison chaplain in The Adventures of Jonathan Wild supplies the justification: "If we must drink, let us have a Bowl of Punch—a Liquor I rather prefer, as it is nowhere spoken against in Scripture."
Many Punch-drinkers absorbed their portions without incident. But as Fielding also observed, this time in Tom Jones, "There are indeed certain Liquors, which, being applied to our Passions, or to Fire, produce Effects the very Reverse of those produced by Water, as they serve to kindle and inflame, rather than to extinguish. Among these, the generous Liquor called Punch is one." Just because clubmen were literate and of at least a middling social rank didn't mean that they wouldn't sluice themselves a little too liberally from the bowl and end the evening in a crashing, heaving general brawl. With Punch on the table, even someone as civilized as Samuel Taylor Coleridge can end up smashing glassware, windows and furnishings, as he and Theodore Hook and their fellow topers did on one late evening at "a gay young bachelor's villa near Highgate" (Coleridge brewed the Punch, so Lord knows what was in it).
But that only fit in with the times. In the early eighteenth century, London was nothing like the trim, orderly place it (mostly) is today, with its neat ranks of just-so town houses, its quiet, leafy parks and its general air of peaceful bustle. The streets in the older parts of town were dark and narrow and choked with (as Jonathan Swift put it) "filths of all hues and odour," while not even the most fashionable new neighborhoods were exempt from having herds of swine driven through them to market. Londoners were different, too. The lords and marquesses and other fine gentlemen didn't carry umbrellas but carried swords, and not just for show, while the common people weren't so much plucky and quaint as frankly terrifying—a xenophobic, violent lot who made a sport of pelting anyone who ventured into the street in fancy court-dress with some of those "filths" and could turn from curious crowd to murderous mob at the drop of a handkerchief.
They did not drink Punch. They drank gin, and far too much of it. As much as their putative betters deplored the gin habit, though, they weren't all that much better when it came to resisting the power of aqua vitae. When, in the 1730s, Parliament began to consider various prohibition measures, there were always members who could be counted on to mount passionate arguments for the exemption of Punch and its component spirits (i.e., anything but gin) from the law. In 1737, when Parliament passed the infamous Gin Act, with no exceptions, one of the first acts of protest came from the Cherry Tree Tavern in Clerkenwell (by then, taverns had followed the coffeehouses' lead in serving Punch), where "a Company of 100 Persons resolving to drink Punch . . . had a Bowl (or rather Trough) of that liquor . . . containing 80 Gallons, which was drunk out before the Company parted."7 Reading through the Old Bailey's records of the rapes, robberies, assaults and outright murders committed under the influence of Punch, one may conclude that at times the main difference between the filth-pelter and the peltee was the price of their tipple (those sword-carrying gentlemen, for example, had a distressing habit of getting quarrelsome over Punch and sticking each other, all too often fatally).
Punch was not cheap. Once it became a status drink, the literate classes made it an object of connoisseurship, in particular the spirits that fueled it. By the late seventeenth century, the days of generic aqua vitae were over. Now drinkers had preferences. If it wasn't arrack, imported at great expense from the East,8 it was French brandy, by now (at its best, anyway) an exceedingly well-distilled, barrel-mellowed commodity, or fragrant rum from the Caribbean. For a bowl of Punch made with one of these, one might expect to pay six or eight shillings a three-quart bowl. Eight shillings doesn't sound like much, but in an age when, as a friend of Samuel Johnson observed to him, "thirty pounds a year was enough to enable a man to live [in London] and not be contemptible," it amounted to half a week's living wage—say, some two hundred dollars today. The lemons alone cost the equivalent of eight dollars each. Sure, you would split this bowl between three or four people, but it still required a rather hefty capital investment. By the 1730s, the gin-drinkers had learned to make Punch with it, which could be sold for a shilling— say, twenty-five dollars a bowl. Entirely more like it. With the creation of Gin Punch, this simple sailor's expedient completed its conquest: all levels of English—or rather British, as it had to be called since the 1707 union of England and Scotland—society were more or less comfortable with the idea that spirits could be drunk recreationally.
More or less. There would always be some who eyed Punch with suspicion. In 1727, Daniel Defoe could still sniff about "The Punch Drinkers of Quality (if any such there be)." But he was an old timer, born just before the Restoration, and didn't quite get what was going on. People of "Quality" most assuredly drank Punch; they just didn't really respect it. Not even in the colonies: in 1739, Charles Francis wrote a friend in England from Jamaica that "The common Drink here is Madeira wine, or Rum Punch; the first, mixed with Water, is used by the better Sort; the latter, by Servants and the inferior kind of People." Now, it's safe to say that either he wasn't being strictly truthful or his Jamaican acquaintances were on their best behavior while the man from the home office was sniffing around. Jamaica was as punchy as a place could be. But it's true that even in its heyday, Punch could never quite rid itself of the whiff of the lower decks it carried with it. A gentleman or a lady could always drink French claret—even the brandy-jolted, adulterated stuff that passed under the name9—without giving even the severest critic grounds to so much as raise an eyebrow. But Punch, even at its most carefully compounded and wholesome, remained something of a spree drink, fuel for a devil-take-the-hindmost journey to the end of the night.
In the colonies, that didn't matter so much, since by definition no colonial was truly of the best sort. As a result, Punch, and particularly Rum Punch, was consumed by almost every rung on the social ladder. When a group of African slaves plotted with a white alehouse-keeper to burn New York and slaughter its inhabitants— the abortive uprising that would be known as the New York Conspiracy of 1741—it was over Rum Punch that they conspired. Three years later, when Dr. Alexander Hamilton of Maryland took a trip to Maine and back for his health, he found his fellow colonials sluicing themselves with the stuff pretty liberally, in just about every town he visited. And if from time to time he joined them in a bowl, what of it? It was simply the sociable thing to do, as George Washington had to learn the hard way. In 1757, when the twenty-five-year-old major stood for election to the Virginia House of Burgesses, he was known as an unsociable fellow who had frequently wrangled with the local "Tippling-house keepers" over their selling drinks to his soldiers. To prove his uncongeniality, he stood on principle and declined to provide the customary free drinks at his campaign rallies. He lost. The next year, he spent thirty-six pounds and change on liquors, almost half of it on Punch. He won.
After independence for a time, free men continued to club together to while away their idle hours around a bowl of Punch, just as they had when they were subjects of the king. In November 1783, when the Continental Army reoccupied New York, there was a general carouse of several days' duration. As part of it, George Clinton, the governor of New York State, held a banquet for the French ambassador at which the 120 guests emptied 30 bowls of (presumably Rum) Punch—and 135 bottles of Madeira, 36 bottles of port and 60 bottles of English beer. Or then there's the celebration held for the ordination of a New England minister in 1785, at which the eighty people present put paid to "30 Boles of Punch before the People went to meeting" and "44 boles of Punch while at dinner," not to mention 28 bottles of wine, 8 bowls of brandy and an unspecified quantity of "cherry rum." As the new republic found its legs, though, the old institution began to seem a little quaint.
By then, though, Punch was beginning to fade even in the land that first fostered it. We can see the beginning of the end in India in a letter the India Gazette published in 1781 from "An Old Country Captain." "I am an old stager in this Country," he writes,
having arrived in Calcutta in the year 1736... Those were the days, when Gentlemen studied Ease instead of Fashion; even when the Hon. Members of the Council met in Banyan Shirts, Long Drawers and Conjee Caps; with a case bottle of good old Arrack, and a Gouglet of Water placed on the Table, which the Secretary (a Skilful Hand) frequently converted into Punch...
Note the nostalgic mode (and that wonderful word "gouglet"). The very fact that he had to write in to mention all this indicates that business was no longer conducted on these lines. By 1810, Thomas Williamson could write about Punch, in his East India Guide and VadeMecum, that "that beverage is now completely obsolete, unless among sea-faring persons, who rarely fail to experience its deleterious effects." How low the mighty have fallen! Things were no better in America, long a bastion of Punch-drinking. By 1810, Americans were no longer colonists, and they were rapidly pursuing their own mixological path, without so much as a glance over their shoulder at their traditional drinkways.
Even in England, life was changing. The ritual of the Punch bowl had been a secular communion, welding a group of good fellows together into a temporary sodality whose values superseded all others—or, in plain English, a group of men gathered around a bowl of Punch could be pretty much counted on to see it to the end, come what may. All in good fun, and something the modern world could perhaps use a little more of, but it required its participants to have a large block of uncommitted time on their hands. As the nineteenth century wore on, this was less and less likely to be the case. Industrialization and improved communications and the rise of the bourgeoisie all made claims on the individual that militated against partaking of the Lethean bowl. Not that the Victorians were exactly sober, by our standards, but neither could they be as wet as their forefathers. As Robert Chambers put it in 1864, "Advanced ideas on the question of temperance have, doubtless, . . . had their influence in rendering obsolete, in a great measure, this beverage."
This isn't the only reason Punch fell by the wayside, of course. Improvements in distilling and, above all, aging of liquors meant that they required less intervention to make them palatable. The rise of a global economy made for greater choice of potables and a more fragmented culture of drink. Central heating to some degree dimmed the charms of hot Punch. Ideas of democracy and individualism extended to men's behavior in the barroom, where they were less likely to all settle for the same thing or let someone else choose what they were to drink. Like all social institutions, the bowl of Punch was subject to a plethora of subtle and incremental strains. Eventually, by midcentury, they toppled it, with most of the pull coming from America. Punch was out and the Cocktail, the down-the-hatch, out-the-door-and-back-to-work drink par excellence, was in. The flowing bowl would serve out the rest of its days in the twilight land of the special-occasion, holiday-gathering drink.
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The Punch mixers of the 17th century did not have vodka at their disposal, so your challenge is to create a Punch that includes today’s most popular spirit. Aim for a Punch that will suit modern tastes, yet would still be recognizable as Punch to imbibers of yesteryear. Your modern Punch recipe can be concocted as a traditional bowl for a crowd, or in the format of an individual Punch, which became increasingly popular by the middle of the 19th century.
The core ingredients of a traditional punch include spirits, citrus, sugar, water and spice. In Punch: the Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl, David Wondrich proclaims, quite poetically, a reliable ratio of these ingredients is “One of sour, one of sweet, / Four of strong and six of weak,” strong being a spirit, and weak being water and/or ice. Below is a little more detail on what he means with that quote.
Lemon and lime are the classic sour notes embraced by sailors for their vital vitamin C. However, you can feel free to use a combination of fresh, tart citrus, or house-made sour mix, critical for drinks like a Tom Collins, which is essentially a single-serving Punch.
Woodrich refers to oleo-saccharum, a simple extraction of citrus oils in sugar, as the “ambrosial essence” of Punch. To make an oleo-saccharum, muddle together lemon and orange peels with sugar in a bowl and allow it to sit for at least 30 minutes. Alternates include a bevvy of sweetening liqueurs, like maraschino and curaçao, simple syrups or juices like pineapple.
Refers to distilled spirits. During Punch’s reign, brandy and rum were common ingredients, along with slightly more obscure spirits, like pisco and arrack. These were frequently used in combination with each other or with table wine and more temperate fortified wines, like Madeira and Port. Additionally, beer or champagne have added a bit of fizz.
Cocktails receive their necessary dilution by shaking with ice. Punch is usually mixed with enough water, ice or other non-alcoholic mixer, even tea, to render it the approximate strength of wine. This makes it ideal for sipping, unlike the more potent cocktail.
The most traditional spice for Punches is a garnish of freshly shaved nutmeg. There is an easy tendency to go too strong on spices, so exercise caution.