Last week, several dozen bartenders gathered on the low-riding banquettes and plush lounge chairs of the Pegu Club to hear cocktail historian and author of Imbibe!, David Wondrich, talk about punch. The presentation was essentially a preview of Wondrich’s forthcoming book on the subject, due out this fall. He took his drink-slinging audience through the history of punch, which dates the 1600s, offering not just a chronological progression of the concoction, but also some sociological perspective on those who have enjoyed it over the years.
For starters, did you know that punch was invented to recreate the taste of wine? Wondrich began by telling the story of how British naval officers, whose wine reserves would sour before they reached their final destinations, learned to mix potions that emulated the taste of wine using the spirits they collected abroad, such as Arrack from Southeast Asia. Good Arrack punch was not cheap: it sold for today’s equivalent of $200 a bowl. Ordering it was like getting bottle service in a swank club, mused Wondrich.
Skip ahead to the late 17th century, and rum punch has become popular in England, thanks to the import of sugar cane spirit from the colonies. Gin, at this time, was still considered terribly lowbrow. Wondrich joked that the idea of making punch with gin would be as preposterous as making it today with crack, which got a chuckle from the crowd.
By the early 18th century, however, good gin was gaining ground among the elite. (Interestingly, the middle class still preferred brandy; apparently, the lower and upper classes had more in common with each other than either did with the bourgeoisie, largely due to their interaction in the military. This common ground allowed gin to make the leap from poor man’s drink to respectable tipple.) In 1738, a man named James Ashley opened The London Punch House, which defied convention by serving punch in smaller portions, the smallest being an eight-ounce glass. He also sold it for 25 percent cheaper than his competitors. To prove his drinks were well made, he mixed them tableside, which in many ways was the birth of a-la-minute bartending.
A few more interesting tidbits Wondrich bestowed upon his listeners: In Scotland and Ireland, punch was almost always served hot; and the drink traditionally comes in such small glasses because of the constant toasting that was the fashion at the time (when drinking to one’s health, one must always drain the glass… and refill it). What else did the studious barkeeps learn? “Charles Dickens was a demon punch maker,” according to Wondrich, who turned out several laudable recipes himself that day. So good, in fact, that his pupils could not help but swallow their homework.