The earliest discovered use of the word dates back to 1632. In the past, it was used to convert voters, grease the wheels to pass legislation, define Christmas and influence war. The main ingredients of punch were spice, sugar, citrus and rum. It was these ingredients, not gold, which motivated the European odysseys into the East and West Indies.
The origins of punch are disputed.
Some point to the old Hindustani word “paanstch” meaning five: implying a large beverage concocted from five key elements – sweet, sour, alcohol, water and spice as its origin. But some credit it to English merchant sailors, and while they might not have invented punch, they certainly drank it. Men working ships for the British East India Company used it as a beer alternative in the 17th century. English sailors were known to consume vast quantities of beer during their voyages, but when the ships reached the warmer waters of the Indian Ocean, the beer held in cargo bays grew rancid and flat. Once the boats reached the shore, sailors created new drinks out of the ingredients indigenous to their destinations: rum, citrus and spices.
The sailors brought punch back to Britain. With its exotic flavors and expensive ingredients, it became a fixture in the elite houses of 17th century England. It trickled into the middle class as “mixers” became affordable for most respectable households. Punch was ubiquitous in the British Atlantic World, spreading as far as the American colonies. Massive punch bowls were at gatherings in the summer months. It has been recorded that the founding fathers drank 76 of them at the celebration following the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Back then, rum was not the smooth refined drink it is today.
It tasted downright nasty and was highly intoxicating. So while combining it with sugar, spice and citrus not only made rum more palatable. It also made it more socially acceptable in finer society. Alcohol became more unacceptable in Victorian society. Lesser intoxicating beverages such as wine, Madeira and brandy became popular in place of rum.
Charles Dickens felt that “nobody should begrudge the citizens of England this simple, age-old pleasure.” Dickens was known to have a fondness for sweet alcoholic punches. A mulled wine punch known as a Smoking Bishop, is even mentioned in his timeless holiday classic, “A Christmas Carol.”
There are a whole host of delicious, wine-based holiday punch recipes from the 17th century to modern times available online. So in the spirit of Christmas, Charles Dickens and the fascinating history of punch, break out the punch bowl and conjure the Cratchit family gathered around the hearth, “A Merry Christmas to us all, my dears. God bless us! God bless us everyone!”
By Georgene Mortimer, Island Winery