The Sipsmith Blog

Exploring The Colourful History of Punch

in Articles April 22, 2016
History of punch

Once relegated to Christmas parties, relished by few, punch is back in a big way. Read up on the colourful history of punch (and get inspired to make your own bowl).

We at Sipsmith owe quite a debt to British sailors, who have had an enormous influence on the way we drink gin today. For starters, we can trace our beloved V.J.O.P. to the Navy’s over proof spirits. A number of our favourite gin serves, including the G&T and the Gimlet, were invented to inoculate sailors against scurvy and malaria. And the history of punch? It’s entwined in Britain’s maritime past, too.

First, more about that name: “punch” doesn’t refer to sailors’ tendency towards pugilism after a few rounds of strong drink. Instead, the name originates from the Sanskrit word “panch,” meaning “five.” That hints at the traditional components of punch: a classic recipe includes strong, weak, sweet, sour, and spice elements (or, in modern parlance: alcohol, water, sugar, citrus, and spice).

As the Sanskrit would suggest, the history of punch is especially linked to India, where sailors for the British East India Company are said to have first encountered the drink in the early 17th century. Back in those days, sailors were provided with a daily ration of 10 pints, though beer had a tendency to spoil in the tropical heat. They turned, then, to the ingredients they could find locally, including arrack – a palm-based spirit common to South Asia – or, in the West Indies, rum. The addition of local fruit and spices, including nutmeg and mace, was the next step towards establishing punch’s flavour profile.

From its overseas origins, punch found its way back to Europe (and to the North American colonies) later in the 17th century, where it was favoured by the intellectual set, and frequently served in buzzing punch bars. By the 19th century, punch was seen as old hat and broadly fell out of favour, though it had its admirers (of which Dickens is one of those most remembered – he’s famed for setting his bowls of punch alight).

But the more recent history of punch has seen the drink’s stocks rise once again, beginning with 20th century cocktail parties, where a punch bowl was a simple way to provide tipples for a large group. Now, a number of the world’s top cocktail bars have fully embraced punch, from New York’s Death & Company to Punch Room at the London EDITION. Who could object to a large-batch drink meant to be enjoyed with friends, after all?

Inspired to make your own punch? Take a gander at our recipe below, which combines all five traditional flavour elements (and be sure to gather a large group to enjoy it with).

Gin Punch

50ml Sipsmith London Dry Gin

25ml freshly squeezed lemon juice

25ml honey syrup (combine honey with an equal measure of water and let it rest, stirring occasionally until it is dissolved)

50ml pomegranate juice (you can substitute cranberry, pineapple, or a mix of juices)

50ml strongly brewed chai

Add all ingredients to an empty cocktail shaker or mixing glass and stir to blend. Pour into an ice-filled rocks glass or tumbler and garnish with a wheel of lemon, orange, or tangerine. Note that this recipe makes enough for one serving, but scale up to make a whole bowl’s worth by multiplying according to the total servings needed.

Feature images © Rebecca Brockie/iStock; Skip ODonnell/iStock

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