Okay, so “Punch” has been around much longer than the 18th Century. In fact, the idea of punch is, well, old, really old. The word can be traced back to the 15th Century and it’s all tied to the reason sailors wanted a shorter route to Asia – Nutmeg. At its peak, nutmeg bought at its source could be sold back in Europe at an impressive mark up of 60,000 times its purchase value with cloves, mace and pepper, not far behind. All this trade was carried out by that evil institution that precipitated the Boston Tea Party — The East India Company. The word ‘punch’ is derived from the Hindu word paanstch meaning ‘five,‘ implying a large beverage concocted from five key elements – sweet, sour, alcohol, water and spice.
The East India Company certainly did not invent Punch. Trade with India has existed for millennia, but the English merchantmen quickly adopted punch as a drink of choice. With recipes for punch recorded by visitors to the English East India Company’s factory in Surat, India as early as 1638 as a drink containing, “aqua vitae, rosewater, citrus juice and sugar.“ Water is often omitted in early recipes as it was expected as a mixer into any spirituous liquor. All early recipes for punch called for the use of citrus an ingredient later proven to prevent scurvy. For this reason, punch was rapidly adopted by the captains of the East India Company as a good drink to keep their sailors happy and healthy. With many sailors returning with memories of drinking punch, it’s little wonder that in the port cites of Europe and eventually the Americas soon became very popular.
By the mid-17th century, punch had spread out of the docks and into “Proper Society.” Punch morphed into a mixture of brandy, sweet wine, whole egg, cream and a crack of nutmeg. Along with the many changes made to the English drinking mentality, society also created an exceptionally elegant decorum for drinking punch and special purpose bowls in which glasses would hang upside down in the cool (or hot) liquid became commonplace. By the mid-18th Century, the age of punch had well and truly arrived, and everyone was drinking it.
From a spirituous bowl comprising of five ingredients easily acquired on the voyage on an East Indiaman, to a social tipple of middle-class addiction, punch had not only evolved into almost every part of English society, but into that of her colonies as well. As the first permanent settlers arrived into America at the start of the 17th century, booze and bowls were quick to follow. Never a shy bunch when it came to drinking liquor, English colonials took to punch with a vigor.
Unlike back home in England where numerous spirits and a great diversity of wine were used for punch, in America there was little choice but brandy and whiskey for making punch. Colonials were kept in ample supply of molasses thanks to a Triangle Trade between America, the West Indies and Africa. So punch again morphed from its original five ingredients into something more closely resembling a modern cocktail with fruit, molasses, and rum.
One of America’s most popular punch recipes today still remains the Fish House Punch. A traditional mixture of rum, peach brandy, lemon, sugar and water (depending on your reference). In 1732 on the banks of the Schuylkill river in Philadelphia, a social club known as State in Schuylkill Fishing Corporation was established with the simple goal of socialising, fishing, eating and drinking. The club swiftly grew in stature and by 1747 they had built a club house which became affectionately known as The Castle. It is here that their official Fish House Punch was apparently invented. The club remains in operation today holding title as the oldest continuously operating social club in the English-speaking world. And while little is said of the fishing, one can always find a catch in their punch.
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