THE FLOWING BOWL: A short history of punch


Three Gentlemen making a bowl of punch

Three Gentlemen Making a Bowl of Punch


You may talk of brisk claret, sing praises of sherry;
Speak well of old hock, mum, cider, and perry;
But you must drink punch if you mean to be merry.

A bowl of this liquor the gods being all at,
Though good we should know it by way of new ballad,
As fit for both ours and their Highnesses’ palate.
(Purcell, Blow, & Walsh, ca. 1730)

Open just about any book written in English between the late 1600s and the mid-1800s that deals with daily life, more than likely someone is going to make or consume a bowl of punch.  For almost 200 years, punch reigned as the mixed drink of choice in the English-speaking world.

The Origins of Punch

No one really knows, nor are we ever likely to decide who concocted the first bowl of punch.  Many people of an etymological bent are of the common belief that the word ‘punch’ can be traced to the old Hindustani “paunch” meaning five, a reference to the five classes of ingredients in punch recipes; distilled spirits, water, sugar, citrus, and spices.  Sustaining this interpretation is that there are many references to punch in the East India Trading Company’s correspondence, and the reports of travelers to their factories (the period word for trading posts) on the Indian subcontinent.  The earliest English reference to punch is found in a letter sent on September 28, 1632 by Robert Addams, one of the companies men-at-arms wishing Thomas Colley, a factor, good luck on an upcoming trip to Bengal.  Addams wrote,

“I am very glad you have so good company to be with all as Mr. Cartwright.  I hop you will keep good house together and drincke punch by no allowance.” (P.R.O., 1892)

This mention did not define what punch was however.  Six years later, in 1638, Albert de Mandelslo, a young German, arrived at the East India Company’s factory in Surat, where he wrote of the factors drinking “a kind of drink consisting of aqua vitae (distilled spirits), rode water, juice of citrons, and sugar.” (de Mandelslo, 1662)

The First English Trading Station (factory) at Surat

The First English Trading Station (factory) at Surat

Apparently, intemperance was one of the chief causes of death at the English factories in India. One of the East India Company’s Captains reported that, ”The Chiefe Occasion of this disease is doubtless Intemperancy . . . for ‘tis a place that abounds with Racke (Arrack) and ffruit, and these immoderately taken Cannot Chuse but ingender Surfeits.”  One can hardly blame these Englishmen for drinking excessively.  They were 13,000 miles and a six-month voyage from home, cooped up in a small compound in an unfamiliar land surrounded by a little understood culture and diseases that were taking their comrades with surprising regularity.  Consumption of punch in India does not prove invention there.  Of course, all of the ingredients that go into punch were available in India.  Alexander the Great had found sugar cane growing there in addition to palm sugar, there was plenty of citrus, arrack, and water – however questionable, and while India produced few spices, they were widely available.

Conditions for inventing punch were also favorable elsewhere in southern and eastern Asia.  The first European travelers to these parts found themselves floating in distilled spirits.  In his account of Magellan’s voyage around the world, Antonio Pigafetta says, of the 1521 visit to the Island of Palawan,

“They also gave two cages full of fowls, two goats, three vessels full of wine, distilled from rice, and some bundles of sugar cane.  They did the same to the other ship; and embracing us they departed.  Their rice wine is clear like water, but so strong that many of our men were intoxicated.  They call it arak.” (Pigafetta, 1874)

He reported that the natives there also drank distilled palm wine, however, the rice wine was stronger.  The Dutch mission to Batavia (Indonesia, also known as Java) found the Chinese community there also making much aqua vitae of rice and Cocus (coconut sap) which the Javanese came by night to buy and drink secretly since Mahomet’s Law forbids it to them.  Consequently, Indonesia provides the same favorable conditions as India for inventing  punch; plenty of arrack, sugar, citrus and water, and to top it all off, the spices were even cheaper.  If the Europeans had taken the time to visit the Chinese arrack houses, might we not today know that it was in fact a “punch house”?  In fact, by the middle of the 17th century, the Europeans were identifying these establishments as just that.  We do not know if the changed terminology reflects changed drinks or just a better knowledge of what they were serving there.

Batavia, the Center of Dutch Trade in Indonesia

Batavia, the Center of Dutch Trade in Indonesia

There is, however, another theory as to the origin of the drink.  In 1907, the Reverend Charles Bridges Mount, a sub-editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, wrote an article challenging the accepted etymology of punch and positing that the first man to make punch was a sailor.  The basis of his argument rests on the popularity of the drink among English tars, and the rapidity with which those of other nationalities adopted the formula and its name.  Mount wrote, “Sailors of different nationalities, when not fighting each other, are apt to be good comrades. . . . Moreover, they are very ready . . . to pick up from each other words which subsequently become current in the language of those who have taken the words.”

The argument however, goes further than that.  It goes even to the provisioning of ships.  Traditionally, English ships had been provided with beer for all and supplemental wine for the “gentlemen.”  As voyages became longer in the Elizabethan period, this proved a rather cumbersome arrangement.  First, beer and wine took up a great deal of space with each man’s daily ration of two to four 40 oz quarts of beer and the “gentlemen” good for at least half of that in wine.  When the East India Company’s first trading mission set sail in 1601, its four ships and 480 men carried 30,000 gallons of beer, a like amount of cider, and 15,000 gallons of wine weighing some 420 tons.  Considering that the capacity of the 4 ships was only 1,160 tons, allocating over 1/3 of the capacity to alcohol was less than ideal.  The bulk of the beverages was not the only problem.  Before pasteurization, it was hard enough to keep beer from going bad stored in a cool, dry cellar but sloshing around in a ship’s bilge was asking too much.  Beer and wine often went bad before the ships cleared the Canary Islands.  In 1588, as England readied for invasion by the Spanish Armada, a fatal epidemic struck the fleet.  Charles Howard, Lord Admiral of England, attributed it to the beer that had gone sour.

Naval Officers and a Bowl of Punch

Naval Officers and a Bowl of Punch

In any case, by 1600, long-haul English voyagers were carrying lots of distilled spirits.  As far as the citrus goes, although it was not until the 19th Century that the Royal Navy finally stamped out scurvy by instituting universal rations of lime juice, the Elizabethans had known that citrus was a sure cure.  A journal kept on board one of the early East India ships, records that, after stopping in Guinea for a supply of lemons,

“above 50 men that wer before given over to death ar now become lusty and strong, for the lymmons have scowred their mowths, fastened their teath, and purified the blood.”

James Lancaster, leader of the East India Company’s first fleet, not only provisioned his ships with bottled lemon juice, but stopped often for more lemons and oranges, even going so far as to retrace part of his route when he had run out.  In 1617, John Woodall, Surgeon General for the East India Company, prescribed taking two or three spoonfuls of lemon juice, mixed with one spoonful of aqua vitae against the scurvy.  They possibly sweetened this with sugar since the East India men carried plenty of sugar and procured more when they could.  Even the spices were available; Lancaster shipped 50 pounds of assorted cloves, cinnamon, and nutmegs for use during the voyage.  Indeed, Admiral Vernon, in the 1740 order directing that his sailors daily ration of a half-pint of rum, brandy, or arrack be mixed with a quart of water before issue, thus making grog, came close to making it official by also adding that “they that are good husbandmen may …purchase sugar and limes” to make the result “more palatable to them.

Portrait of Admiral Edward "Old Grog" Vernon

Admiral Edward “Old Grog” Vernon

So, what is the origin of punch?  I will leave that up to each of my readers to make their own personal decision on that.  The thing is though; does it really matter whether punch originated in India, Java, or with sailors?  I don’t think so.  As we will see in our next post, it arrived in England and her colonies and left an indelible impression that would influence people and events for almost 200 years.

Out of curiosity, what is your thinking on the origins of punch?  Let’s take an unscientific poll by using our comment section to vote your thoughts on the subject.  While you are at it, if you enjoyed this post how about going ahead and giving us a “like?”  Also, do not forget to follow the blog so you will not miss part 2 of our “Flowing Bowl” post.



de Mandelslo, J. A. (1662). The Voyages and Travels of J. Albert de Mandelslo. London: F. Starkey.

P.R.O. (1892). Correspondence to Thomas Colley. En G. B. Public Records Office, Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series – East Indies and Persia 1630-1634 (pág. 290). London: Eyre and Spottiswoode.

Pigafetta, A. (1874). The First Voyage Around the World, of Magellan. London: Hakluyt Society.

Purcell, H., Blow, J., & Walsh, J. (ca. 1730). The Iovial companions, or, Merry club. London: Walsh.

Wondrich, D. (2010). Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl. New York: Penguin Group.


© 2014
Chuck H

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