Following on from our Rum Punch cocktail earlier this month, Lauren Eads takes a deep dive into the history of Punch, from 17th century India to its renaissance in 21st century London, Paris and New York. 

Say the word ‘Punch’ and several recollections may come to mind. For some, it could be a sticky sweet bowl of, well, anything, thrown together at a party and served by scooping out a slosh of liquid with a plastic cup, drunk like lemonade. Banish any association of this scenario with the word ‘Punch’ right now. Instead imagine huge blocks of ice in a silver bowl filled with perfectly-balanced flavours and served from a ladle among friends.

You can’t overlook Punch’s links to colonialism, having been brought back to England via the East India Company in the late 17th century. Punch was a way of tempering the fiery alcohol like arrack they encountered in the east. It became fashionable back in Europe along with other exotics goods like tea and spices from India (and later rum from the Caribbean). Punch became hugely popular with the aristocracy hosting lavish parties where the size of your Punch bowl was something of a status symbol. One excerpt from The Gastronomic Regenerator (1846) mentions an 18th century party where the Punch bowl was so big it came with a rowing boat. It served over 6,000 (says Anthony Callegari, bar manager at the re-launched Punch Room in London).

La Commune

La Commune in Paris (header photo from the same source)

The rule of five

Popular opinion suggests that the word ‘Punch’ derives from the Hindi word ‘panch’, which means five, which ties in with the idea that a traditional Punch requires five elements (a spirit, a sugar, water or tea to lengthen, a citrus, and a spice). “The ingredients going into it were expensive, sugar, citrus, spice – they were status symbols. It was a drink of the affluent class. Punch was allowed to be served in coffee houses, (and wasn’t taxable), so people weren’t necessarily drinking coffee but Punch all day long,” explains barman, author and noted Punch enthusiast Nick Strangeway. “It’s those five key things, but we can’t categorically say what a Punch is.” Indeed, David Wondrich, drinks historian and author of Punch, suggests that the name could have come from what it was first served in – a 500l Puncheon – and that Punch can, and often is, made from four or even six ingredients. 

So while the traditional five is a handy rule of thumb, it’s not necessarily gospel. Most traditional Punch recipes will use tea as its spice and oleo saccharum (sugars extracted from lemon peel), says Adama Ballo, head bartender of La Commune in Paris, which champions French spirits and Punch. “Punch is traditionally quite a low ABV cocktail, so we try to respect this tradition,” says Ballo. “Out of all the categories of cocktails it’s one of the most emblematic and definitely makes the world of cocktails more fun, appealing and beautiful.”

Punch Room team

The team at the Punch Room in London

Reimagining Punch

While Punch fell out of favour by the late 19th century, and lost the battle against American cocktails in the 20th, the last decade has seen a resurgence, with the diversity and quality of ingredients now greater. “I liked it as a drink for two reasons; one I was sick of Americans telling me that they were better at making drinks than everyone in Europe, but I didn’t have anything to hang it on,” says Strangeway, who has been singing the praises of Punch since launching a Punch-fuelled menu with Hawksmoor in 2006. “Secondly, I liked that it was a sessionable drink, something to share.” Bars like The Punch Room in London, La Commune in Paris (sister bar of Le Syndicat), and The Dead Rabbit in New York are all champions of Punch, with top bartenders creating inventive and visually stunning bowls decorated with flowers, herbs and spices. What’s most important, says Strangeway, is that it retains its lightness and delicacy as a sessionable beverage, and makes use of oleo saccharum as its sugar. “That was one of the key revelations when I started; the oleo saccharum gives you Punch and sweetness. You don’t need much for a big powerful flavour. I think that’s essential.”

Callegari’s approach at The Punch Room has been to take well-known cocktails – a Cosmo, Americano or Old Cuban – and give them a “Punch makeover”. “For me, the main thing is for a Punch to have a strong singular flavour (not just a boozy one),” he says. “This method promotes a balanced outcome so also allows you to experiment with more interesting ingredients that will complement other elements of the drink.” Far from just ‘chucking it all together’, Callegari’s team can take days to finish a Punch, infusing, straining, blending and brewing high quality ingredients before bringing them together. “The attention to detail plus time and care over these techniques make Punch as intricate as any cocktail (if not more so) as you can’t simply take a few bottles off the shelf and throw them together.”

Big Smoke 1

Big Smoke at the Punch Room

The history of Punch

There’s no need to stick to five-ingredients either, believes Liam Davy, head of bars at Hawksmoor in London. After all, we “aren’t in the 1700s anymore”. The most important thing is the mood it creates – convivial and communal – served at a celebratory occasion. “The key to a great Punch is finding interesting ways to lengthen it without just diluting the flavour,” says Davy. “It needs to have a sweet and sour element but it is NOT a sour, it’s a long drink. Teas and wines are a traditional way to do it but play around with kombuchas or home-made cordials. Champagne is always welcome.”

Milk Punch is another variation that has captured the imagination of bartenders. “It combines the right level of technique-y nerdiness, with the shock value of making the key ingredient ‘disappear’,” says Davy. Milk Punch isn’t new. It’s thought to have been invented by British writer Aphra Behn in the 17th century. A recipe for ‘fine milk Punch’ can also be found in the 1887 edition of The White House Cookbook, with Benjamin Franklin known to be a fan. It’s made with a spirit, tea, citrus juice and warm milk, with the curdled liquid strained to produce a perfectly clear Punch. The Punch Room’s ‘Big Smoke’ uses oat milk infused with Laphroaig, for example. “Guests are sometimes put off by the name or expect something akin to a White Russian,” says Callegari. “But when they come to try it, they are completely surprised, not only by the way it looks and how it tastes, but by the (sometimes lengthy and intricate) process it’s gone through to get there.”

While bartenders are bringing back Punch, its fun and irreverent nature means it’s also perfect for serving at home. And it’s easy to make. Here’s a few recipes from the experts.

Le ‘Communal'

Le ‘Communal’

Le ‘Communal’ – Adama Ballo (La Commune)

1 part rhum agricole
2 parts Cognac
4 parts homemade peach iced tea
1 part lemon juice
2 parts simple syrup (1/1)

Find a wonderful, giant, bling bling Punch bowl featuring a silver old school spoon and fitted glassware so you can create some theatre and effect. You can find plenty in flea markets or in auction. Decorate with mint and tea leaves.”

Parks Punch (inspired by an Americano) – Anthony Callegari (The Punch Room)

15ml Savoia Aperitivo (or similar)
25ml sweet vermouth (Martini Rubino)
15ml mandarin syrup
1 dash of balsamic vinegar (the best quality you can find)
40ml pale ale (we use Juicy 4PM New England Pale Ale from One Mile End brewery)
Grapefruit peel to garnish

“Chill the glass (a Collins or a Highball works best) in the freezer. Add the pale ale first into the bottom of the glass and let it sit for a moment. Follow with the rest of the ingredients. Quick stir with a long spoon (don’t overdo it). Load with ice to the brim (normal cubes is fine for this one). Then, if you wish, garnish with a twist of grapefruit peel.”

Punch variation of a Hawksmoor Calling – Liam Davy (Hawksmoor)

700ml Fords Gin
200ml lemon juice
200ml honey syrup (3 parts honey: 1 part warm water)
200ml Tio Pepe Fino sherry
700ml cold brew camomile tea (brew 6 camomile tea bags in 700ml cold water for 1 hour)
300ml Champagne

Pour everything into a large Punch bowl and add large ice blocks. Garnish with cucumber slices, lemon wheels and mint leaves.”