The libation known as Punch emerged in India during the early seventeenth century, and from there it grew into a global phenomenon. During an unprecedented period of popularity that lasted for two centuries, Punch was enjoyed by many drinkers across the Anglo-Atlantic world. Planters in both the Antebellum South and the Colonial West Indies enjoyed it from their verandahs, and this tradition lives on as welcome drinks at Caribbean rum distilleries and resorts. Punch was also enjoyed by political figures on both sides of the Atlantic, including America’s Founding Fathers and senior officers in the British Royal Navy.
Punch was also appreciated by several writers from the British Isles. English Playwright Aphra Behn, and American President Ben Franklin were both enthusiastic about clarified milk punch. The author of Gulliver’s Travels; Johnathan Swift expressed admiration for Punch often; He was a fan of a poem written in 1680 in praise of punch, and according to Dave Wondrich, considered the composer of that poem to be the “true original institution of making Punch.” Swift also mentioned both orange punch and punch bowls in a piece of satire, and in a letter to his lover written in 1711 discussed whether he preferred the beverage with brandy or arrack.
Far more famous than Swift, both for Punch and for Children’s literature was Charles Dickens, the author of Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, and countless other classics. Defining characteristics of Mister Micawber, a clerk from David Copperfield includes both his perpetual optimism and his enjoyment of punch. Early in the book, he is described drinking “a glass of punch with an air of great enjoyment and satisfaction” and being both “cheerful” and “convivial” when consuming the beverage. Later in the novel, the narrator recalls Micawber making punch; “I never saw a man so thoroughly enjoy himself amid the fragrance of lemon-peel and sugar, the odor of burning rum, and the steam of boiling water.”
When the Ghost of Christmas Present appears to Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, he is surrounded by a holiday feast that includes suckling-pigs, plum-puddings, red hot chestnuts, and “seething bowls of punch that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam.” At the end of the story, Scrooge has now embraced the Christmas spirit and he offers to Bob Cratchit a mulled wine served in a Punch bowl known as Smoking Bishop.
Just like his characters, Dickens himself was associated with Punch and was known for the pageantry of his punch-making. A witness to Dickens making punch said that it was “poured out in the manner of a conjuror producing strange articles from a hat”. The author would typically light the bowl on fire to caramelize the sugars and lightly cook the lemon-peel.
Luckily for modern drinkers, Dickens has left behind a recipe for punch in a letter written to a friend in 1847. The instructions, summarized are as follows;
To make three pints, peel the rinds of three lemons, Add the peel to a bowl along with a double handful of sugar, a pint of rum, and a large wine glass of brandy.
Set this on fire, by first igniting some spirit in a spoon and then slowly lowering the lit spoon so that it makes contact with the contents of the bowl. After a few minutes of flame, extinguish it by covering the bowl. Add the juice of the three lemons, as well as a quart of boiling water. Stir, cover, and stir again. Remove the peels and serve.
This recipe has been interpreted in many different ways, and some versions use tea in place of the boiling water, and Pineapple Rum as part of the rum portion.
Charles Dickens’ Christmas Punch
3/4 cup Demerara sugar
2 cups Jamaica Rum or other dark rum
1 1/4 cups Cognac or other brandy
5 cups hot water
Lemon and orange wheels, for garnish
Freshly grated nutmeg, for garnish
Peel the lemons carefully and add the peels to the sugar in a warm heatproof bowl. Allow the citrus oils to release.
Add the rum and Cognac to the bowl. Stir the contents with a heatproof spoon, then add some of the spirit to the spoon, light it and lower it carefully.
After allowing the flame to burn for about three minutes, cover it with the lid for an equal number of minutes.
Remove the peels, stir and serve with slices of citrus as a garnish.