punch during the 17th and 18th centuries. Colonial America was awash in rum due to the colonist’s links to the Caribbean and the Triangle Trade. An abundance of molasses, a byproduct of sugar, flowed into the colonies from Caribbean sugar plantations, and much of the colonists’ rum was distilled in the northeast. On the eve of the American Revolution, more than 140 rum distilleries produced nearly 5 million gallons each year, and more than 3 million additional gallons were imported. Punches also took advantage of local and seasonal fruit and sugar. The “four of weak” varied between several common ingredients. Mid-morning and day punches used tea and milk products, providing energy and nutrition. In addition, Champagne was cheap and plentiful, and was often used in evening and celebration punches. After the Revolutionary War, Americans surged west, and whiskey supplanted rum as the spirit of choice. Surpluses of grain in the Ohio country and a lack of transportation infrastructure spurred innovation. A bumper crop of wheat, rye, or corn? Distill it! One horse could carry about four bushels of grain, but distill the grain and the same horse could carry the equivalent of 24 bushels in the form of whiskey. Whiskey flowed down the Mississippi to New Orleans on flatboats and was redistributed to the rest of a thirsty nation. This was mostly raw whiskey, as distillers were only just beginning to
understand barrel aging. Punch was a good use for the harsh but abundant spirit, and whiskey with sweet tea was the favored punch in the American south. Ice was another drinking innovation introduced the 1800s. Attempts early in the century to develop a distribution network for ice in a pre-refrigeration era failed to launch due to difficulties in harvesting and transporting. But ingenuity prevailed, and new harvesting equipment and techniques were developed. The use of sawdust, a byproduct of timber camps in the north, along with trains allowed for the distribution of ice to bartenders across the country. By 1847, 52,000 tons of ice was being delivered to 28 American cities. Now, punch was ladled into cups filled with ice. The popularity and proliferation of punch can be seen in the first published guide for bartenders. In 1862, a watershed year for American drinking history, Jerry Thomas published his Bar-Tender’s Guide. The guide signaled the professionalization of the trade and the first printing of the entirety of American drinks. Of the fifteen categories listed, the category of punch contains 86 different recipes, the largest category. How many cocktails were listed? Just ten. So, what is necessary to make and serve a punch? The equipment required for punch has always been admirably simple — a punch bowl, a ladle, and whatever cups or glasses were at hand. The punch
bowl as part of a well-stocked home goes back to 1680s Boston. The first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, noted their availability. Bowls were ceramic, pewter, silver, even wood. Benjamin Franklin wrote of his punch bowl made of china as evidence of Asian trade routes. The size, materials, and level of intricate designs were symbols of wealth and power. America’s most famous punch bowl was a silver vessel made by Paul Revere, an accomplished silversmith. The punch bowl he created in 1767 to honor the ninety-two members of the Massachusetts House of Representatives who opposed the British Crown’s taxes is on display today at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Yet one need not have a fancy bowl of silver to do a punch — the basic bowl design has changed little over 300 years. Today, punch retains its virtues of hospitality and ease of preparation. For hosting a party or entertaining guests over the holidays, punch is a wonderful way to say welcome. For the host busy with preparations, punch is perfect. You do all but the last step (pouring in the “four of weak”) in advance. It’s ready when guests arrive. Toast and enjoy time with your guests and invite them to help themselves.
Renee Cebula is a cocktail historian. She is the owner and curator of Raising the Bar: Vintage & Badass Barware. FB: Raising the Bar Northwest, Insta/Twitter: badassbarware, raisingthebarbarware.com.
Published on Sep 19, 2017