The Return of Punch

The Return of Punch (cont.)

The first appearance of the word punch, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is in a 1632 letter from Robert Addams to Thomas Colley, a merchant at Pettapoli, a short-lived English settlement in the Bay of Bengal. The OED points to the word’s origins as being the Marathi and Hindi term paunch, meaning “five,” a reference to the original five-ingredient recipe.

Bombay Government Punch

Served in Virginia Punch Set, $129.95

Wondrich says that he’s found evidence that the five-ingredient formula for punch was served in England (under different, local names) before trading began with India, but he doesn’t know whether or not the English invented it. Vintage Spirits author Haigh thinks that it was first made in India and was discovered by Europeans, who developed the same sort of fascination for the drink as they had for silks, spices, and sugar. “Punch did contain five ingredients, all available easily in India,” he says. “Only one, water, was common in Europe.”

Punch was popular in England from the 1600s to the 1800s, and it hopped the pond to Colonial America, where it was served in taverns and at parties in private homes. Thomas Jefferson’s father is said to have traded a large piece of land for a bowl of arrack punch. Because punch was made with imported ingredients like citrus and spices, and it was made in large quantities, it was too expensive for the lower classes. “It was a gentlemanly drink,” says Wondrich. It was one of the few things a man would prepare himself and not trust to the servants.

Full Moon Punch

Served in Virginia Punch Set, $129.95

The gentlemen, however, “were a pretty rowdy lot,” Wondrich says, noting that punch was very strong and that “it led to a lot of riotous behavior back in the day.” This is well documented in books: Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities by William S. Walsh, copyrighted in 1892, recounts poet Samuel Coleridge and composer Theodore Hook getting trashed and breaking stuff at a party, rock star–style.

The first glass of the punch was handed to Hook, who paused to quaff it, and then, exclaiming that he was stifled, flung his glass through the window. Coleridge rose … and demolished another pane; the example was followed generally,—the window was a sieve in an instant; the kind host was farthest from the mark, and his goblet made havoc of the chandelier. The roar of laughter was drowned in Theodore’s resumption of the song …

Solstice Punch

Served in Wallace Silversmiths 15-Piece Grande Baroque Punch Set, $1,119.90

If it was such a good time, why did punch fall out of fashion? It could have been the tightening social norms of the Victorian era, or that people no longer had time to linger over a bowl and opted for the quick fix of the cocktail instead. Haigh says the drink lost its identity. As the cocktail was gaining ground in the 19th century, punch was simultaneously becoming more elaborate, more foofy, with concoctions including liqueurs, syrups, and multiple spirits. It’s a trend that never seemed to stop, culminating in a “virgin” mess of soda, tropical fruit, and sherbet ladled into plastic cups at high school proms.

With its revival, punch may reclaim its bad-boy roots. “I served a famous New York boxer and his crew punch,” says Death & Co co-owner David Kaplan. “They seemed to like it, iced-out grills and all.”

PUNCH RECIPES

HOW TO MAKE ICE FOR PUNCH

Your Bundt pan can do double duty as an icemaker. Watch »