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A Vintage Cocktail That Packs A Punch

Punch bowls are back, but they're not filled with sugary juice and cheap booze. Drink historian David Wondrich pays homage to the "monarch of mixed drinks" in his new book, Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl.By NPR

Punch bowls are back ? but they're not flowing with lime sherbet or ginger ale or sugary juice mixed with handles of cheap booze. No, think Mr. Micawber's punch ? from Charles Dickens' David Copperfield ? a hot, steaming bowl of lemon, sugar and spirits that made Micawber's face shine "as if it had been varnished all over."

The punch cocktail has a long history that starts with British sailors (who drank a lot), says liquor historian David Wondrich. Sailors were entitled to 10 pints of beer per day ? but when they sailed into the tropics, the beer spoiled, and that's when they turned to punch.

"They made it with local ingredients in India and Indonesia in the early 1600s," Wondrich tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. "They were 13,000 miles away from any source of English beer or wine, and they had nothing to drink. And English sailors ... respond very poorly to that."

Wondrich, who is also a mixologist, has paid homage to what he calls "the monarch of mixed drinks"; his book, Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl, features 40 historical punch recipes for the ambitious drink mixer.

The oldest punch in Wondrich's book is called Meriton Latroon's Bantam Punch (recipe below). It's made with a sinister-looking black liquor called arrack ? it's a form of rum produced in Asia, distilled from the sap of palm trees.

Wondrich calls this a "challenging" and "old-school punch." The flavor, he says, is one that was "not tasted very often over the last 300 years." (And it gives off "a faint whiff of tires," Wertheimer observes.) But these flavors are being resurrected in the modern culinary world, Wondrich says, and the punch ? which he admits looks like soy sauce ? also has "a great fragrance to it."

For a more classic punch, Wondrich turns to Dickens, the British novelist who was also something of a punch cocktail connoisseur. "Dickens always made punch for friends," Wondrich says. "Whenever he entertained, it was part of his ritual."

But even for Dickens in the mid-1800s, punch was something of a throwback. "By his day," Wondrich explains, "punch had gotten kind of old-fashioned. Queen Victoria was very opposed to the lax moral standards that the upper classes in particular had held to in her predecessor's days. And she didn't like their habit of getting grossly drunk on punch and champagne and wine."

So punch was out of style ? but that was part of the fun. "[Dickens] was a great antiquarian," Wondrich says. "He liked to collect all the old customs and habits of old England." So he'd invite his friends over, concoct a big bowl of punch, and then describe the punch-making process for his guests.

The Dickens punch in Wondrich's book is taken from a detailed letter the novelist wrote to his friend's sister ? and it's a "classic 18th-century brandy rum punch," Wondrich says. "This is punch from its golden age."

The golden age of punch may be over, but Wondrich welcomes the modest revival the social beverage is seeing in the 21st century.

"One of the professional hazards of the drink historian is nostalgia ? which I try to avoid," he says. "I know life was tough then and there were a lot of unpleasant things, but there were some compensations, and I think the whole punch ritual was one of them."

For party throwers in 2011, Wondrich recommends turning a cocktail party into a punch party. That way, "you don't have to make individual drinks for everybody," he says. "Everybody gets to share something. And it makes for a lovely party.

But he also offers a word of warning, which harkens back to the subtitle of his book: "The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl."

"Punch should not be the strength of a cocktail," he advises. "It's got to be something considerably less dangerous. ... The whole point is it's a social drink. ... You're supposed to keep going back to the bowl, and every time you go back to the bowl somebody else is there and you talk to them ... and it ends up being very jolly and pleasant."

Recipe: 'Meriton Latroon's Bantam Punch'

Punch: The Delights (And Dangers) Of The Flowing BowlTHE ORIGINAL FORMULA

For we had not only the country drink called toddee, which is made of the juice of several trees, and punch, which is made of rack-lime, or lime-water, sugar, spices, and sometimes the addition of amber-grease, but we likewise drank great quantities of Persian wine, which is much like claret, and brought from that country in bottles.

SOURCE : Richard Head/Francis Kirkman, The English Rogue, Continued, in the Life of Meriton Latroon and Other Extravagants. Comprehending the Most Eminent Cheats of Most Trades and Professions. The Second Part, 1668


In a mortar or small bowl, muddle a piece of ambergris the size of a grain of barley with an ounce of Indonesian gula jawa or other dark, funky sugar until it has been incorporated. Add 2 ounces Batavia arrack and muddle again until sugar has dissolved. Break up 5 ounces of gula jawa, put it in a two-quart jug with 6 ounces lime juice and muddle together until sugar has dissolved. Add the ambergris-sugar-arrack mixture and stir. Add the remains of the 750-milliliter bottle of Batavia arrack from which you have removed the 2 ounces to mix with the ambergris, stir again, and fi nish with 3 to 4 cups water, according to taste. Grate nutmeg over the top.


Ambergris is clotted whale cholesterol, secreted in large lumps that float around until they wash ashore. That doesn't sound very appetizing, but by the time it washes up, ambergris has aged into a lightly, sweetly and very persistently fragrant substance that most resembles soap. What with the present state of the whale, it is also hideously expensive, but then again, it was never cheap ... Since it is essentially a fat, it must be rendered mixable before it can be used, which the above process will do. If the trouble, expense (it goes for about?twenty dollars a gram) or squick factor is too much for you, it may easily be omitted, although it does add a subtle, insinuating I-know-not-what to the Punch that cannot?otherwise be replicated. For muddling the ambergris, regular demerara sugar is better?at absorbing the fragrance, if less authentic. If you can't get gula jawa, which is a sticky, funky mix of palm and sugarcane sugars, then muscovado, piloncillo, panela or jaggery will do. But it's worth tracking the real stuff down, as it gives the Punch its porterlike color and a good deal of its umami-driven brothiness. If you don't have a pitcher, a bowl will of course work just fine. I don't recommend ice here, although an hour in the refrigerator will do no harm. If you wish to incorporate tea, as Head's brief note seems to?suggest, add 3 cups of hot green tea, made with 3 teaspoons of loose tea or three tea bags, to the sugar-lime juice-ambergris extract mixture, stir and then add the arrack.? Add, if necessary, another cup of cool water at the end.

YIELD: 8 cups.

From Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl by David Wondrich. Copyright 2010 David Wonderich. Excerpted by permission of Perigree Trade.

Recipe: 'Charles Dickens' Punch'



Peel into a very strong common basin (which may be broken, in case of accident, without damage to the owner's peace or pocket) the rinds of three lemons, cut very thin, and with as little as possible of the white coating between the peel and the fruit, attached. Add a double-handfull [sic] of lump sugar (good measure), a pint of good old rum, and a large wine-glass full of brandy ? if it not be a large claret-glass, say two. Set this on fire, by filling a warm silver spoon with the spirit, lighting the contents at a wax taper, and pouring them gently in. [L]et it burn for three or four minutes at least, stirring it from time to Time. Then extinguish it by covering the basin with a tray, which will immediately put out the flame. Then squeeze in the juice of the three lemons, and add a quart of?boiling water. Stir the whole well, cover it up for five minutes, and stir again. At this crisis (having skimmed off the lemon pips with a spoon) you may taste. If not sweet enough, add sugar to your liking, but observe that it will be a little sweeter presently. Pour the whole into a jug, tie a leather or coarse cloth over the top, so as to exclude the air completely, and stand it in a hot oven ten minutes, or on a hot stove one quarter of an hour.? Keep it until it comes to table in a warm place near the fire, but not too hot. If it be intended to stand three or four hours, take half the lemon-peel out, or it will acquire a bitter taste.? The same punch allowed to cool by degrees, and then iced, is delicious. It requires less sugar when made for this purpose. If you wish to produce it bright, strain it into bottles through silk. These proportions and directions will, of course, apply to any quantity.

SOURCE : Letter from Charles Dickens to "Mrs. F." (Amelia Austin Filloneau), January 18, 1847


Use an enameled cast-iron pot for the "common basin," or at least something heatproof. Six ounces of demerara sugar should do ? particularly if you can get the sort that comes in rough cubes. Use 20 ounces of rum and 6 of Courvoisier VSOP cognac (the brand Dickens kept in his cellar) to be ?authentic, or 16 ounces of rum and 10 of cognac if you don't want the brandy to get completely lost in the mix; for that rum, I find a sixty-forty mix of Pirate Juice and Planter's Best styles works well here, although you can also go all out and deploy something in the Reverend Stiggins's Delight line. Indeed, Dickens's cellar also held a number of bottles of "fine old pine-apple rum" (the good reverend's favorite), which may be approximated by combining 12 ounces Smith & Cross

Jamaican rum and 20 ounces Angostura 1919 rum in a sealable jug along with an eighth of a pineapple, sliced, for a week; strain, let the solids settle, siphon off the clear rum and bottle.

Whatever you do in the way of rum, the fire will melt the sugar and extract the oil from the lemon peel. Dickens's advice about lighting the spirits from a spoon is extremely sound: always bring the fire to the alcohol, not the alcohol to the fire. (And a stainless steel spoon is fine ? anything but

pewter or, God forbid, wood or plastic.) The rest of his advice is also sound, as befits a man who was an acknowledged master of the art. The water should probably be an imperial quart, or 40 ounces.

YIELD : 8 cups (more than "three pints," but who's counting?).

From Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl by David Wondrich. Copyright 2010 David Wonderich. Excerpted by permission of Perigree Trade.

Recipe: 'Bombay Government Punch'

To prepare, first stir 2 cups of Demerara or Turbinado sugar in 1 cup water over a low flame until the sugar has dissolved (about 5 minutes). Let this cool. Then squeeze 12 limes and combine the juice in a large bowl with 12 oz of the Demerara sugar syrup and stir. Add 2 750-ml bottles of fragrant, Navy-style rum or 1 bottle of rum and 1 750-ml bottle of VSOP-grade cognac and top off with 2 quarts water or, for a more stimulating concoction, cold black or green tea (use 2 1/2 tablespoons loose tea or 8 tea-bags). Stir again and refrigerate. Half an hour before serving, add a large block of ice (this can be made by freezing 2 quarts of water in a bowl overnight), taste and adjust for sweetness, if necessary, with the additional syrup. Grate nutmeg over the top. Serves 20, or 10 journalists.

A Note on Ingredients:
For the rum, you want something rich and funky, not smooth and clean. Suggested brands include Smith & Cross, Wray & Nephew, Lemon Hart, El Dorado, Banks 5 Island and 10 Cane or, for a truly wild punch, Batavia Arrack van Oosten. Some of those are overproof, in which case they may be combined with a mellower rum or, of course, cognac.

From Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl by David Wondrich. Copyright 2010 David Wonderich. Excerpted by permission of Perigree Trade.


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