We had the pleasure of attending Conor Brady’s ‘The History of the Mixed Drink’ lecture at The Black Box where he shared with us plenty of fascinating drinks history.
One of our favourite parts was learning all about the history of Punch!
Unfortunately the word Punch these days generally inspires images of frat parties and Spring Break, but the traditional image of Punch couldn’t be much further from this. . The earliest discovered use of the word Punch, dates back to 1632.
To put this into context: this same year construction began on the Taj Mahal, pilgrims had yet to settle in America, St Paul’s Cathedral in London was being built, and Galileo was being gently probed by the Inquisition. But to fully understand the origins of Punch, we have to first understand the East India Company – a merchant conglomerate founded in England in 1600 to compete against the Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese in the battle to gain control of the emerging spice market.
In the 17th Century, it was nutmeg of all things that would influence 4 major wars, the ownership of New York, and global colonisation. At its peak, nutmeg bought at its source could be sold back in Europe at a mark up of 60,000 times its purchase value, with cloves, mace and pepper, not far behind. So it was pretty obvious that, whoever could best command control of the spices from South East Asia was going to get very, very rich.
By the 1630s, the East India Company had established a number of trading posts throughout the East Indies. But the sailors who were permanently stationed there – well, they didn’t really have much to do in between dealing with visiting traders. So when in South East Asia, do as the South East Asians do: Combine the local hooch (in this instance, arrack which was distilled from molasses and rice), with whatever was on hand to make it palatable: a dash of citrus juice, a spoonful of sugar, and lots of spice, all diluted with a little water to make it bearable. And there you have it: the basic formula for Punch – strong, sweet, sour, weak, all topped with a bit of spice, which would remain the same general formula for centuries to come.
Whilst the English soldiers may not technically have invented Punch (and none of them actually bothered keeping notes of who did), what they did do was popularise it, and ensure its message was carried around the globe.
“Where the Dutch first settle they build a fort, the Portuguese a church, and the English a Punch house”
With so many sailors returning from Eastern voyages with few highlight other than the memories of drinking Punch, it’s unsurprising that the docks and ports of Europe’s biggest seafaring harbours play host to the first landing of Punch into Western society.
Over the next century, Punch would spread out of the London docks and into mainstream society. And it was a social leveler, given its communal nature. For Punch wasn’t a drink that you drank individually – in fact, none of the drinks consumed in England until this time were served individually. Traditionally, Punch would have been served in large Punch bowls, from which whoever was round a table would serve his neighbour.
From a bowl comprising five ingredients acquired on the voyage to the East Indies, to a social tipple of middle class addiction, Punch not only evolved into almost every part of English society, but into that of her colonies as well , and ultimately proved to be the precursor of the mixed drink that, centuries later, we’d come to know as the “cocktail“.
Words and drinks geekery by Conor Brady.