Sunday, February 12, 2017
Punch, the Ancestor of All Cocktails
Any deep rumination on cocktails leads back to the beginning and where it all begins is punch.
Although drinking from a communal bowl goes back to prehistory, the English word ‘punch’ is about 375 years old and describes a specific kind of drink, not just the practice of making a big batch of something and serving it in a bowl, although that was part of it too.
'Strong waters' (i.e., distilled spirits) as a beverage and intoxicant were just starting to emerge in Europe in the mid-17th century. It was then that a clear spirit, flavored with juniper and sweetened with another new vice, white sugar, first became popular. They called it gin. It also was the period when European colonists in the Americas first began to make rum; and when brandy shipped from the region of France now known as Cognac first began to be exported.
Europeans on both sides of the Atlantic were discovering the pleasures of distilled spirits.
In England, punch was the first big drink craze based on a distilled spirit. It was a custom the English brought back from their colony, India. One story says the name comes from the Hindi word for “five,” because punch always has five ingredients: alcohol, water, citrus fruit, sugar and spices. That story has been told for a long time even though it can’t be proved and has many doubters.
True or not, it was what punch drinkers in England believed. Punch had to be served from a communal bowl and it had to have those five ingredients, which left plenty of room for creativity.
Alec Waugh, brother of Evelyn, claimed that the classic formula for punch was one part citrus, two parts sugar, three parts spirit, and four parts water.
The alcohol of choice was Indian arrack, an un-aged distilled spirit, probably about 50% ABV, which though generally made from fruit or sugar cane could be made out of anything from coconut milk to mare’s milk.
As punch evolved, spices were the first ingredient to go. They had been things like nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and coriander. Indian-made arrack was replaced by brandy or rum. By the 19th century, gin punch was popular with the English literary set.
When it comes to punches, ancient or modern, recipes are merely suggestions. First, pick a spirit. Vodka is a good substitute for traditional arrack, but brandy and rum are popular, and whiskey, especially bourbon, is not unknown. Next, toss in some citrus juice; orange for body, lemon and lime for pucker, grapefruit, tangerine, whatever. Keep it simple. Give it some sparkle with seltzer or lemon lime soda. Taste often and make adjustments as necessary. Garnish it with fruit slices and keep it cold with a big chunk of ice.
A simple mixture of vodka, juice and ginger ale combines all of the elements–even a little spice–of the earliest punches. Substitute bourbon for more flavor.
Cocktails evolved from punch much the way birds descended from dinosaurs, or how the martini went from a specific drink to anything served in a martini glass. Although punch was their inspiration, the cocktails of the late 19th century began to use more local ingredients (brandy, rum, whiskey, gin), reduced the spices to a dash of bitters, and transformed the citrus juice into a twist of lemon skin. The water became bubbly and, sometimes, it had sugar in it.
Today, the popular cocktail that may best recall the taste of punch’s origins is the gin and tonic.
The trend to making drinks in glasses was inevitable in our individualistic culture, but something was lost. The greatest modern chronicler of punch history, David Wondrich, has called punch drinking a ritual of secular communion. He also describes such popular drinks as the whiskey sour, daiquiri, sidecar, cosmopolitan, and margarita, as “essentially, Punches cut to Cocktail shape.”