In the early-17th century, European visitors to South Asia start to mention punch in their letters home. They describe drinks made in quantity and served communally using a local cane and rice spirit known as arrack. Drinks writer Simon Difford suggests punch drinking was traditional to the region, citing an account from German adventurer Johan Albert de Mandelslo who observed factory workers in Surat consuming a mix of ‘aqua vitae, rosewater, juice of citrons, and sugar.’
Cocktail historian David Wondrich, meanwhile, claims that sailors on colonial business invented the stuff as ersatz wine made with available ingredients. Colonial history often confuses matters of discovery, invention, and theft, and so the truth of who invented punch is lost to history. What we do know for sure is that when those sailors arrived home they bought with them supplies of arrack and recipes for punch.
By the 18th century, punch was enormously popular in Britain, having become a symbol of prosperity and empire. It contained imported ingredients like tea and lemons, as well as rum and sugar – both spoils of British colonies in the Caribbean. Making punch at this time was highly ritualised; citrus peels were carefully muddled with sugar to extract their oils, alcohol was flamed, and mixtures were given time to steep and combine.
The upper crust commissioned elaborate bowls and ladles for the serving of punch. The fashionable gent of the day would have carried a little silver grater to finish glasses of the stuff with a dusting of nutmeg. Punch was served at coffee houses and at high society functions – it was absolutely everywhere. A century before the invention of the Boston Shaker, there was a thriving cocktail culture built around rum punch.
Putting it all together
Punch isn’t one cocktail with a more-or-less agreed-upon recipe. There’s lots of room to experiment and tailor it to your needs. For rum expert and Black Tot brand ambassador Mitch Wilson, that’s a big part of its enduring appeal. ‘Honestly, I think the greatest strength of punch is that you can throw in whatever you’ve got to hand. You can use the recipe below as a base, but feel free to adapt it to what you have available.’
Navy Rum Punch (15 servings)
500ml Black Tot Finest Caribbean
250ml Rum Bar Overproof
300ml fresh lime juice
150g demerara sugar
450ml fresh pineapple juice
150ml fresh Orange Juice
45ml Angostura Bitters
A good punch does require a bit of pre-planning. The day before your party, take a couple of large Tupperware – or similar – containers, fill them with water, and put them in the freezer. You need big ice cubes for a big punch. On the day of, assemble your ingredients a few hours before your guests arrive and get your punch bowl/large mixing bowl/big saucepan ready to go. Mitch takes us through what to do next:
‘There’s an old recipe for punch that goes “one of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak.” One of sour is your fresh citrus. Two of sweet are juices like the fresh orange and pineapple used here. The trick, is to use fresh ingredients wherever possible – fresh juices will make your punch pop far more than shop bought. As part of this sweet element you might also want to add sugar to bring all the flavours together; stir a little raw demerara into your juice, a little at a time, until you get the right level. Three of strong is rum: You can use almost anything, but I like to blend different styles together. Typically, I’d put some Barbados rum in for the fruity aspects, and a little Jamaican or St. Lucian to give the punch a feisty kick. Then you should always throw in some over-proof for good luck.’
After combining all the ingredients, carefully bottle up your punch and put it in the fridge to chill down. When it’s time to serve, turn out the ice blocks from your Tupperware into the punch bowl. ‘Dilution is important. Your ice blocks will melt gradually over time, and your juices are diluting too’ notes Mitch. This is where the weak component comes in, although exactly how weak you make it is up to you – Mitch recommends topping up the punch with Champagne for a lively twist. Ladle out your punch into individual cups and garnish with mint, berries, and – unless your guests have bought their own – a little grating of fresh nutmeg.