Cocktail Historian David Wondrich On The History Of Punch

What is a party without a punch bowl? Cocktail historian David Wondrich reveals a brief history of punch, as well as an 18th-century recipe, for a deeper appreciation of this age-old festive concoction.

Think of punch and a basin filled with a cloying and potent mix of cheap spirits, sodas and boxed juices comes to mind. In certain cocktail bars, however, you’ll find the large-format cocktail to be much more refined, with better alcohol and a wealth of flavours.

At Republic, its punch bowls, developed with award-winning author and cocktail historian David Wondrich, offer something more: a glimpse of the past. “Konstantin Nemolochnyi, assistant director of food and beverage at The Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore and I wanted to serve punches that would reflect key points in the history of drinks where Singapore was pivotal,” says Wondrich of the collaboration. “I finally came up with three: Captain Diamper’s Punch echoed the first time the Europeans reached Southeast Asian waters in the 1600s and learnt to use local ingredients in their drinks; Paul Jones Punch pays homage to when American ice trade first made it into Asia in the early 1800s; while the Straits Gin Cup recalls the famous Gin Sling of Singapore, created in the late 1800s.”

There is no one better to tell the story of punch than Wondrich, who devoted an entire book to it. First published in 2010, Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl is a historically informed tribute to the subject. “It is the first mixed drink based on distilled spirits to gain worldwide popularity and the foundation for almost all of modern mixology, and yet there was no book on its history. An opening like that was too big to ignore,” he adds.

Republic’s Christmas Punch Brunch
Republic’s Christmas Punch Brunch

Initially a seaman’s drink, punch originated from our part of the world, in the ports of India and the East Indies, and was made using native ingredients such as arrack, lime juice, palm sugar and spices. “Punch was a drink of the early 1600s either invented or adopted by British sailors in South and Southeast Asian waters based on local ingredients to replace their usual ration of beer or wine,” Wondrich reveals. “From a sailor’s drink on the Asian route, it travelled back to England and from there to the Caribbean, where it developed into the primary drink of British America. As its popularity grew, so did the sophistication of its makers, and what was a rough sailor’s drink became the drink of kings.”

According to Wondrich, the best punch from the best punch-house in London in the mid-1700s was based on Batavia arrack from Java and aged in teakwood casks. Soured with bitter Seville oranges, sweetened with rich Jamaican or Barbadian sugar and spiced with nutmeg from Indonesia, it was smooth, rich and heady. “People drank it by the gallon,” he adds.

How did the favoured drink become the headache-inducing, whatever-goes fraternity tipple? Wondrich explains, “With industrialisation, few had time to sit in large groups around a bowl of punch. It became a drink for special occasions, and once it was that, people quickly forgot the secrets to making it properly. All they kept was the idea of booze and juices in a large container. On the other hand, the Tom Collins, the Whiskey Sour, the Daiquiri, the Margarita and the Cosmopolitan are all miniature, single-serving punches. So a good punch might have mutated, but it didn’t go away.”

In the 12 years since Wondrich gave punch the attention it deserved, the communal drink has found its place in countless cocktail bars all over the world. What makes a fine punch? “A good punch is spirits with citrus juice, sugar, water and spice,” he states. “The water can be frozen in all kinds of forms, the spirits can be just about anything, the sugar can be an exotic syrup and the citrus can be supplemented with all kinds of other fruits. But the goal is still to have a drink where sweet, sour, strong and weak are all in balance. Any good tiki bar will be able to serve you a great punch, as will most top-level cocktail bars. For me, though, the best punch is the punch you make yourself and share with your friends.”

If you can’t decide between single-serving cocktails or a punch bowl, Wondrich suggests the latter for day and former for night. “For me, cocktails are best at the end of the day when work is done, the evening needs launching, and dinner awaits. Punch is more of an afternoon-with-friends thing, where no clock is ticking and there is plenty of stuff to nibble on as the day unfolds.”

Make one

Wondrich recommends the 18th-century Jamaica Rum Punch for the holidays. This is good for a party of 12 to 15 people.

Ingredients

  • 5 lemons

  • 250ml sugar

  • 1 litre aged Jamaican rum

  • 1.25 litres cold water

  • 1 whole nutmeg

  • Ice

Method

  1. The day before your party, peel 5 lemons in long spirals and put the peels in a sealable 500ml or 1-litre jar with the sugar. Seal the jar, shake well and leave to sit overnight.

  2. The next day, juice the lemons and put 250ml strained lemon juice in the jar with the peels and sugar, which should have absorbed most of the lemon oil from the peels. Seal the jar and shake repeatedly until all the sugar has dissolved. To serve, half fill a 6-litre bowl with ice cubes –
    the larger the better.

  3. Add the rum, cold water and the contents of the jar, peels and all. Stir well and grate half the nutmeg over the top. Ladle out in 90ml portions.

(Main and featured image: David Wondrich)

This story first appeared in Prestige Singapore