Punch has a checkered rep. Most people know it as the beverage of choice at SEC frat parties, rented beach houses on the Redneck Riveria and NASCAR tailgates.
It’s often made in 35-gallon trash cans, where a couple gallons of grain alcohol are mixed with Kool-Aid or some other syrupy facsimile of fruit juice. It goes by rhyming, alliterative names that sound like something imbibed by a gaggle of middle-aged bankers at a Jimmy Buffett concert. Hunch Punch. Jungle Juice. Loco Punch.
Punch exists to get as many people as drunk as possible, as cheaply as possible. Punch-fueled parties generally include at least one person landing in the ER for alcohol poisoning, and alcoholic blackouts for everyone else.
Then there’s the other punch, the politely impotent sort sipped at teas and socials by people wearing ascots, hats and debutante dresses. It has a touch of soda for fizz, fruit juice and actual fruit. No alcohol. Zero. Nada. It’s usually a pretty pastel color like pink or yellow, indicative that it’s watered down and wan, perfect for a party with people dressed like Mr. and Mrs. Howell from Gilligan’s Island.
The Original Cocktail
But punch wasn’t always the drink of alcoholics and WASPs. Punch comes from India, its name a corruption of a Sanskrit word for five, because the drink had five ingredients: alcohol, sugar, lemon, water and tea with a shot of spice. It was the original cocktail, adding ingredients to make strong drink more palatable.
English sailors brought the concoction home in the early 1600s and it spread across Europe. In its original form, it was served at communal gatherings and had modest amounts of wine or brandy, so guests would be just buzzed enough to be convivial. Again, the proto-cocktail.
Then in the mid-1600s, someone got the fun idea to add that new import, Jamaican rum, to everybody’s favorite communal drink. Punch accelerated from polite to party. Punch houses, the predecessors of modern cocktail lounges, popped up in London, serving rum punch to the masses. Charles Dickens was said to have adored rum punches and tippled daily at the neighborhood punch house.
The English took punch and punch houses to their colonies in North America, a.k.a. us, and our Founding Fathers loved the stuff. Punch was The Drink of the Revolutionary War era. George Washington drank so much he wrote about the resulting, epic, three-day hangover in his diary.
And get this: Two days before the 55 delegates signed the U.S. Constitution, they knocked back seven bowls of punch at a nearby tavern. Their tab also included 54 bottles of madeira, 60 bottles of claret, eight bottles of whiskey, 22 of porter, eight of hard cider and 12 of beer. Can you imagine how hung over they were when they finally signed that sucker? “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote … Oh hell, my head feels like a jackhammer. Let’s sign the damn thing and go back to the tavern for hair of the dog.”
The Victorians Ruin Everything, Again
In the Victorian Era, punch, like everything else, became a lot less festive. Alcohol-free versions became the norm so that ladies, preachers and children could drink the stuff. Polite society frowned upon the booze-packed punches of earlier times.
Cocktail culture began to take over and people who wanted adult beverages went to cocktail bars, leaving punch to the prudes and aforementioned rowdies who used sugary punch as a delivery system for grain alcohol. Punch was popular at Prohibition-era speakeasies because the sugary fruit syrup helped mask the taste of cheap, bootleg rotgut, which was the only alcohol most people could get their hands on.
There was also the midcentury incarnation of punch as a sugary drink for children, a la Hawaiian Punch and other concoctions. Served in cans, bags and pouches to kids throughout the 20th century, these drinks gave them an early start on cavities, Type 2 diabetes and obesity. That kind of punch bears no resemblance whatsoever to the punch of history.
Then, the artisan cocktail revival of the early ’00s swooped in and rescued the lost punch culture. Just as hipster mixologists resuscitated frozen drinks from the hell of TGI Friday’s, they restored punch to its muscular origins as a serious, South Asian concoction with a taste that mixes spirit, sweet, spice and citrus flavors into a delightful sip.
A new generation is discovering the joy of the flowing bowl, as punch vessels were known in their heyday. There’s an honest-to-goodness punch house in London called the Punch Room, the first since the 1800s. Some world-famous bars are serving punch, too, complete with a bowl for your table. They’re not the sucrose crap you’d find at a frat party. They’re the old-fashioned versions with gin, Earl Grey tea, spices and a light touch of sweetness.
Check out The Dead Rabbit in New York, the Painted Pin in Atlanta, The Spare Room in Los Angeles or SoBou in New Orleans. There’s even an entire book dedicated to the history of punch, packed with traditional recipes.
If you want to whip out your punch bowl at home, try this recipe for Founding Fathers Punch, an updated version of the stuff that had Ben Franklin and his buddies partying like it was 1776. And here’s a collection of 10 updated cocktail punch recipes.
And remember. Punch is about community. It’s about never drinking alone, but instead sharing a bowl of grog with a crowd. Warmth. Joy. Sociability. Put down your phone, gather ‘round a punch bowl and have a buzzed chat with a fellow reveler. Cheers, punch drinkers.