We all like a cocktail. But 200 years before the term was invented, we had to resort to other creative ways of getting our alcohol fix. In those days, there were no cocktail glasses, fancy recipes or bartender’s tools in those days – so they turned to punch! In its earliest days, in the 18th century, a typical punch would contain ingredients that were considered exotic for the time. Often, these would include fruits that seem normal to us now, but which were extremely rare and expensive three centuries ago.
These included rare treats such as oranges from Asia, fragrant spices from the East and sugar, all the way from the Caribbean, which became the perfect match for the strong flavours of rum and brandy. The trouble was that rum and brandy were very expensive. On the other hand, English gin was increasingly affordable. It wasn’t long before gin became recognised as a better value concoction than some of its contemporary spirits and that was when it entered the mainstream world of punch.
A drink for the middle classes
The relative accessibility and affordability of gin quickly made punch more accessible to the burgeoning English middle classes.
However, strangely enough, the 18th century reveals no published gin punch recipes at all. According to a contemporaneous journal, “a hornful of punch should be administered to cattle in a bid to cure their distemper”. This is a clear indication that in those early days punch was initially considered something of low quality and not of much use to actual humans. However, towards the end of the 18th century, reports of its human medicinal qualities began to appear alongside suggestions that it could help to treat a variety of ailments. Gin Punch was soon believed to be a cure-all for everything from dissolving kidney stones, to curing Berri-Berri. It was also (bizarrely) considered a great way to encourage toxins to leave the body efficiently, in the form of sweat.
1776: the punch revolution
In 1776, at around the same time as the American’s were plotting their revolution, diarist James Boswell wrote (after a particularly good night on the town) that he: “drank rather too much gin punch. It was a new experience to me and I liked it much”.
By the end of the 18th century gin punch had elevated itself from its humble position at the heart of the local gin palace, into something more fitting. This elevation made it suitable for the more sophisticated and rarified atmosphere of London’s gentleman’s clubs. Stalwarts such as the Garrick or Limmer’s Hotel became the places that finally established punch as a popular and respectable, middle class drink. In fact, one of the first gin recipes at the turn of the 18th century, sounds rather nice (but very strong):
– two pints of gin, oranges, lemons, orange sugar syrup and white wine.
Punch goes upmarket
A few decades later, London’s Garrick Club added a new twist to its own “house punch” – soda water. The original Garrick Club Punch recipe called for:
– half a pint of gin, lemon peel, lemon juice, sugar, maraschino, a pint and a quarter of water and two bottles of iced soda water.
It didn’t take very long for its fame to spread around London and before you know it, punches and punch bowls were popping up everywhere. Over time, these punches evolved into more complex single serve variants which were popularised by Americans in the 1870s. They gave them personal names such as the John Collins and the classic Tom Collins. By the end of the century, punch had been truly established in English culture and English Dry Gin had become a mainstay of many of the best punches. But why is punch served in a punch bowl?
Why is punch served in a bowl?
It’s simple, really. As strong punch loosened inhibitions, it helped reserved Englishmen come out of their shell. It helped them to add a little well-lubricated wit to social gatherings, political discussions and business occasions. Drinking punch was always a fabulous social occasion and gathering around the punch bowl ended up becoming the popular focus for many a high spirited evening, loosening inhibitions and encouraging conviviality, conversation and sharing in a way that had never been seen before.
From simple punch bowl to sophisticated cocktails
These days, punches have fallen out of fashion, but that’s a real shame since these simple-to-make, sociable drinks can be a lot of fun. And they can be deceptively strong. Over the years, people’s tastes evolved once more and the simple punch bowl morphed slowly into the next big alcoholic fad in the 19th century – cocktails. Bartenders began to mix drinks to suit their specific customers and the approach to alcohol became increasingly bespoke and sophisticated. Now, the cocktail is definitely king – of that there is no doubt. But there are still some great gin punches out there – and it would be a great shame to let this fabulously simple tradition die out. Check out our recent article on a classic New Year’s Eve punch. And here’s another variant on the gin punch for when the weather gets a bit better.
Gin Punch recipe
- One bag of ice cubes (the larger the better!)
- 6 oranges (cut into quarters)
- 6 lemons (cut into halves)
- 3 limes (cut into wheels)
- 1 pint of fresh raspberries
- 1 pineapple (cut into 1″ cubes)
- 1 bottle of Plymouth Gin (750ml)
- 1.75 cups of freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1.25 cups simple syrup
- 0.5 cup of Orgeat syrup (or almond syrup)
- 1 cup crème de framboise
- 3 cups water
- 750 ml bottle of Spanish cava
- Cut and combine all the fruits into a large punchbowl
- Add the gin, juice, syrups, creme de framboise (or alternative fruit liqueur) and water
- Refrigerate for 4-5 hours
- Before serving: add ice, fill to top with cava and stir
- Ladle into punch glasses with plenty of fruit (and ice)
- Repeat frequently!
Written by Steve (with a little help from Ruddles, the gin dog!)
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