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A Bit of “Punch”

“It is known to almost every one how punch is made; but, that it may be observed for the future where it is made to its greatest perfection, I will mention the true proportion of its constituent parts. To a quart of boiling water, half a pint of arrack is taken, to which one pound of sugar, and five or six lemons, or instead of them as many tamarinds as are necessary to give it the true acidity, are added: a nutmeg is likewise grated into it. The punch, which is made for the men in our ship was heated with red hot iron balls which were thrown into it. Those who can afford it, make punch a usual drink after dinner. While we stayed in China, we drunk it at dinner instead of wine which the company allowed the first table.”
(An early recipe for arrack punch as recoreded in “A Voyage to China and the East Indies” (1771) written by Pehr Osbeck, Olof Torén, and Carl Gustaf Ekeberg)

Through the years of college and work, one may have attended any meet or party with the ever present “punch” popularly served in large, wide bowls at the parties. Essentially punch refers to a wide assortment of drinks, both non-alcoholic and alcoholic, generally containing fruit or fruit juice. Though on American grounds, federal regulations define the word “punch” to label commercial artificially flavoured beverages, with or without natural flavourings or absent of fruit juice or their concentrates in significant proportions. While serving to a larger community group, punch is expected to be of a lower alcohol content than a typical cocktail.

The origins of punch can be traced to the Indian subcontinent. As the sailors and employees of the British East India Company (the early 17th century) discovered that the beers held in the cargo bay of their ships had grown rancid and flat; they had turned to seek out the local distilleries who already had their arrack based drinks. Consequently there were new drinks created out of the ingredients indigenous to their destinations: rum, citrus and spices. These drinks were introduced from their travels to the U.K. and from therein, to other countries of the western sphere.

The word punch may have a Sanskrit relation from the word “pañca”, which translates to five for the drink in the Indian subcontinent had five main ingredients consisting of alcohol, sugar, lemon, water, and tea or spices. Another theorization was that the word had originated from the English “puncheon” (15th century word for a large cask of varying capacity) previously used to transport alcohol on ships in set volumetric capacity sized barrels.

As per the British documents (1632), most punches were similarly to wassail with a wine or brandy base. As Jamaican rum came into use, the modern punch emerged. During the Victorian Era, strong alcoholic punches fell out of favour to the frothy egg white-based and sherbet versions popular until the 1950s. As the cocktail culture grew in full effect, punch fell in popularity. It was given an entire makeover by the 21st century.

With both non-alcoholic (lemon lime-soda, Tiki Punch, Kool-Aid) and alcoholic recipes, punch has still formed a major part of the gathering or party beverages. With each locality or region having their indigenous recipes, like the Barbados Bajan Punch (rum, lime juice, cane sugar, nutmeg, bitters), Central European Jagertee (alcoholic punch of “Inländer-Rum” with spiced black tea), Korean Sujeonggwa (traditional punch of dried persimmons, cinnamon, and ginger), Mexican Agua loca ((“crazy water”) sweet punch of fermented sugarcane, mezcal or tequila mixed with “aguas frescas”) and the famous American Planter’s Punch or Southern Bourbon punch (sweet variety includes sweet tea, citrus flavors and bourbon whiskey) to mention a few.

This recipe I give to thee,
Dear brother in the heat.
Take two of sour (lime let it be)
To one and a half of sweet,
Of Old Jamaica pour three strong,
And add four parts of weak.
Then mix and drink. I do no wrong —
I know whereof I speak.
(The first known print reference to Planter’s Punch in the August 8, 1908 edition of The New York Times. These recipes of Planter’s Punch varies with the combination of rum, lemon juice, pineapple juice, lime juice, orange juice, grenadine, soda water, curaçao, Angostura bitters and cayenne pepper.)

In fact, each family may have their own traditional punch recipes handed down from one generation to the other, especially meant for family gatherings, celebrations or festive occasions. What better way to celebrate the National Punch Day (September 20th) by indulging in new concoctions or making one of own.