From a spirituous bowl comprising of five ingredients easily acquired on the voyage on an East Indiaman, to a social tipple of middle class addiction, punch had not only evolved into almost every part of English society, but into that of her colonies as well. As the first permanent settlers arrived into America at the start of the 17th century, booze and bowls were quick to follow. Never a shy bunch when it came to drinking liquor, English colonials took to punch with a vigor. As the old English saying goes;
“Where the Dutch first settle they build a fort, the Portuguese a church, the English a punch house”
Punch in America
In an early 18th century American punch house, it was the ladies (often the daughters of inn keepers) and not men who were employed to tend the bar. In 1742, The Complete Housewife or Accomplished Gentlewomen’s Companion, was the first ever cook book published in America. In it, author Eliza Smith shares directions on caring for the husband and household alike including a collection of nearly two hundred family recipes for making everything from medicinal ointments and tonics to hosting meals and mixing punches. One of the most remarkable recipes is the entitled Cock Ale Punch which, as the name suggest, requires the act of infusing a whole chicken into ale. During the 17th and 18th centuries it was not uncommon to use the offcuts of meat (including horse of which there was plenty) as a means of enlivening the often cheaply produced ales. Although one can only imagine how bad an ale must taste for a horse leg to improve it?
Compared to other colonial centers of the time, a young pre-independence Philadelphia offered a multiplicity of cultural diversity, civic development and ethnicity making it one of the greatest developing centers of 18th century America. A Quaker city by design, Philadelphia’s religious beliefs didn’t seem to inhibit its thirst none, boasting more public houses per capita at the time than either Paris or Rotterdam. These mid 18th century colonial taverns (whether an ale-house, inn or punch house) were almost entirely set inside residential addresses, where a single room was designated as the bar area with what few tables were available. Unlike back home in England, for early American colonials there was little choice of mixing brandy into their punch as supplies were far and few. And with whiskey as yet to be accepted in mainstream society, colonials were kept in ample supply of molasses thanks to a Triangle Trade between them, the West Indies and Africa. As such it was rum which ran thick in the blood of most American colonials and that which filled the bowl of most 18th century Philadelphian punches.
One of the Philly’s most celebrated residence of the period was founding father Benjamin Franklin. Alongside his lesser known accolades such as creator of America’s first lending library and fire department or for his genius in inventing the Franklin Stove, Glass Armonica (not a wind instrument), Lightning Rod and Bifocal Glasses – Franklin was also an accomplished author and editor. In this role in 1737, Franklin published an article citing over 200 different 18th century terms for being drunk in what he called The Drinkers Dictionary. And whilst living in a city of dedicated Quakers none the less. When visiting Philadelphia seven years later, a gentleman named William Black recorded in his diary that he was given;
“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”.
By the mid 18th century, the coffee house society had also taken hold across America acting as a perfect location to share emerging Machiavellian sentiments. As a location more in champion of punch than coffee, one can only guess at the schemes contrived and executed over a bowl of spirituous punch. By the end of the American War of Independence in 1783, it was the Merchants Coffee House of Philadelphia which was selected as the first public announcement of the new United States Declaration of Independence.
One of America’s most popular punch recipes today still remains the Fish House Punch. A traditional mixture of rum, peach brandy, lemon, sugar and water (depending on your reference). In 1732 on the banks of the Schuylkill river in Philadelphia, a social club known as State in Schuylkill Fishing Corporation was established with the simple goal of socialising, fishing, eating and drinking. The club swiftly grew in stature and by 1747 they had built a club house which became affectionately known as The Castle. It is here that their official Fish House Punch was apparently invented. According to drink historian Gaz Regan, George Washington later made a visit to The Castle where he partook of so much of their punch he didn’t make an entry in his diary for three days.
The club still remains in operation today holding title as the oldest continuously operating social club in the English-speaking world. And while little is said of the fishing, one can always find a catch in their punch.
“There’s a little place just out of town,
Where, if you go to lunch,
They’ll make you forget your mother-in-law
With a drink called Fish-House Punch”
– ‘The Cook’ by Thomas J. Murrey (1885)
By the time Jerry Thomas published the first dedicated cocktail book in 1862 (How to Mix Drinks or the Bon Vivant’s Companion), punch was being slowly surpassed by the new era of the cock-tail. A trend believed to be driven by an increase in the pace and glamour of the American lifestyle alongside an advance in glassware technology. That said, his guide still dedicated 79 of a listed 236 recipes to punch, including of course directions for the Philadelphia Fish-House Punch.
While cocktails were still yet to find their place in English society, Victorian London remained a world socially dominated by punch. Few names stand taller as a Victorian icon than that of Charles Dickens and thankfully for us, few surpass his love of punch. On June 9th, 1870, Charles Dickens passed away at the tender age of 58 at his flat in Gads Hill Place, Kent. While conducting an inventory of his possessions, a collection of more than 180 dozen (2160) bottles of wine, spirits and cordials were found in his cellar alongside hand written recipes for his favorite punches.
First published by Chapman & Hall of London on 17 December 1843, Dickens famous novel – A Christmas Carol – swiftly rose to acclaim rekindling the yuletide spirit of old England. Yet Christmas wasn’t the only thing warming hearts during the Victorian period. One of the most popular punches of the Dickensian era was the Bishop, commonly served hot (or ‘smoking’) in winter to help beat back the cold nights. In one of the final passages in A Christmas Carol, the newly reformed Ebenezer Scrooge is sharing a smoking hot bowl of Bishop with Bob Cratchit in the spirit of Christmas cheer.
But well before Dickens and his ghosts redefined Christmas for future generations, early Britain Anglo-Saxons were already going door to door sharing a bowl of wassail while singing songs of festive cheer and well-wishing for the coming harvest. A practice known as wassailling. Derived from old Norse ves heill meaning ‘be healthy’, the name wassail gives us one of the earliest calls to toast, to which the toastee would respond drinc hæl – ‘drink to your health’ and then dive into a hot spiced bowl of cider.
As the Roman influence and therefore Christianity were yet to convert a largely pagan Britain, it was not the 25th of December or Jesus which was celebrated in deepest winter but the evening of January 5th, a day marking the end of the winter solstice and a festival of great feasting and drinking. The twelve days of darkest winter from December 25th – January 5th is the period known as yule-tide, the whole month which (in the pagan calendar) is called yule. Circa 4th century AD, the Christian church decided to mark the start of solstice (December 25th) as the day of Christ’s birth to help associate with pagan convertees. Other traditions too were adopted into Christian doctrine including the festive cake, festive tree, mistletoe, giving gifts and the practice of wassailling door to door with a strong bowl of punch. While ‘caroling’ continues today (largely thanks to Dickens) it’s unfortunately minus one flowing bowl. But thanks to a few traditional communities across rural England and Germany, Wassail Festivals can still be found celebrated on the Twelfth Night with singing, merriment and punch and aflowing.
“O mistress, at your door our Wassail begins,
Pray open the door and let us come in,
O Mistress, at your door we kindly salute,
For it is an old custom you cannot dispute,
Come young men and maidens, I pray you draw near;
Come fill up our bowl with some cider or beer,
I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year,
A plenty of money and a barrel of beer.”
– The Cornish Song Book by Lyver Canow Kernewek – 1929
While there is argument aplenty as to the exact origin or definition of punch (many purists define a mix of parts strictly sugar, citrus, spirit, water and spice), truth is we’ll never really know. And little should it matter so long as we keep discovering new ways to mix it and new company to share it as it is in this exact capacity, whether at a college frat party or a Royal banquet, that it should always be enjoyed. But rush not, for a great punch is not made in short order. Don’t take my advice on it, ask Billy,
“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.”
– Billy ‘Bully’ Dawson, famous punch brewer c.1660
- Spirituous Journey – Book One: From the birth of spirits to the birth of the cocktail. Jared Brown + Anistatia Miller 2009
- Punch, Delights and Dangers of the Flowing Bowl. David Wondrich
- How to Mix Drinks, or The Bon-Vivant’s Companion. Jerry Thomas, 1862
- Convivial Dickens: The Drinks of Dickens and his Time. 1983
- Stage-Coach and Tavern Days. E.A. Morse, 1901
- The Complete Housewife or Accomplished Gentlewomen’s Companion, Eliza Smith – William Parks Publishing, 1742
- The Flowing Bowl [Punch]. Jeffrey Pogash, 2008 – online article, (bartender.com)
- Anthropology and Migration: Essays on Transnationalism, Ethnicity, and Identity. Caroline Brettell, 2003
- The Joy of Mixology: The Consummate Guide to the Bartender’s Craft. Gary Regan, 2003
- The Larder Invaded: Reflections on Three Centuries of Philadelphia Food and Drink. Mary Anne Hines, Gordon M. Marshall & William Woys Weaver, 1987
- Understanding the Twelfth Night: The Holiday That Time Forgot. Sandy Levins, 2005 – Historic Camden County (website).
- Wassailing! Notes on the Songs and Traditions. Douglas D. Anderson – Hymns and Carols of Christmas (website)
- Pagan Roots? 5 Surprising Facts About Christmas. Stephanie Pappas, 2012 – Live Science (website).