Punch bowls are back — but they're not flowing with lime sherbet or ginger ale or sugary juice mixed with handles of cheap booze. No, think Mr. Micawber's punch — from Charles Dickens' David Copperfield — a hot, steaming bowl of lemon, sugar and spirits that made Micawber's face shine "as if it had been varnished all over."
The punch cocktail has a long history that starts with British sailors (who drank a lot), says liquor historian David Wondrich. Sailors were entitled to 10 pints of beer per day — but when they sailed into the tropics, the beer spoiled, and that's when they turned to punch.
"They made it with local ingredients in India and Indonesia in the early 1600s," Wondrich tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. "They were 13,000 miles away from any source of English beer or wine, and they had nothing to drink. And English sailors ... respond very poorly to that."
Wondrich, who is also a mixologist, has paid homage to what he calls "the monarch of mixed drinks"; his book, Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl, features 40 historical punch recipes for the ambitious drink mixer.
The oldest punch in Wondrich's book is called Meriton Latroon's Bantam Punch. It's made with a sinister-looking black liquor called arrack — it's a form of rum produced in Asia, distilled from the sap of palm trees.
Wondrich calls this a "challenging" and "old-school punch." The flavor, he says, is one that was "not tasted very often over the last 300 years." (And it gives off "a faint whiff of tires," Wertheimer observes.) But these flavors are being resurrected in the modern culinary world, Wondrich says, and the punch — which he admits looks like soy sauce — also has "a great fragrance to it."
For a more classic punch, Wondrich turns to Dickens, the British novelist who was also something of a punch cocktail connoisseur. "Dickens always made punch for friends," Wondrich says. "Whenever he entertained, it was part of his ritual."
But even for Dickens in the mid-1800s, punch was something of a throwback. "By his day," Wondrich explains, "punch had gotten kind of old-fashioned. Queen Victoria was very opposed to the lax moral standards that the upper classes in particular had held to in her predecessor's days. And she didn't like their habit of getting grossly drunk on punch and champagne and wine."
So punch was out of style — but that was part of the fun. "[Dickens] was a great antiquarian," Wondrich says. "He liked to collect all the old customs and habits of old England." So he'd invite his friends over, concoct a big bowl of punch, and then describe the punch-making process for his guests.
The Dickens punch in Wondrich's book (see the recipe here) is taken from a detailed letter the novelist wrote to his friend's sister — and it's a "classic 18th-century brandy rum punch," Wondrich says. "This is punch from its golden age."
The golden age of punch may be over, but Wondrich welcomes the modest revival the social beverage is seeing in the 21st century.
"One of the professional hazards of the drink historian is nostalgia — which I try to avoid," he says. "I know life was tough then and there were a lot of unpleasant things, but there were some compensations, and I think the whole punch ritual was one of them."
For party throwers in 2011, Wondrich recommends turning a cocktail party into a punch party. That way, "you don't have to make individual drinks for everybody," he says. "Everybody gets to share something. And it makes for a lovely party." (Find Wondrich's recommendation for a good "introductory punch" recipe here.)
But he also offers a word of warning, which harkens back to the subtitle of his book: "The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl."
"Punch should not be the strength of a cocktail," he advises. "It's got to be something considerably less dangerous. ... The whole point is it's a social drink. ... You're supposed to keep going back to the bowl, and every time you go back to the bowl somebody else is there and you talk to them ... and it ends up being very jolly and pleasant."