Boy, bring a bowl of China here,
Fill it with water cool and clear:
Decanter with Jamaica right
And spoon of silver, clean and bright.
Sugar twice-fin’d in piece cut,
Kni[f]e, sieve and glass in order put,
Bring forth the fragrant fruit and then
We’re happy till the clock strikes ten.
Punch in England
With so many sailors returning from Eastern voyages with little else but the memories of drinking punch, it’s unsurprising that the docks and ports of Europe’s biggest seafaring harbors played host to the arrival of punch into European society; quickly becoming just as associated sailors, as weevils, wenches and dysentery. By the middle of the 17th century however, punch had spread out of the London docks and into mainstream society.
As punch spread into middle-class society, the formulation multiplied to cater to various tastes. Brandy, sweet wine, whole egg, cream and a crack of nutmeg (if you could afford it) altered your classic five ingredients into a punch referred to as a Fillip (or Flip). There was also milk punch, punch-royal, chambermaid’s punch, brandy punch, and the Regency classics, Negus and Smoking Bishop. All of which, while substituting different ingredients, used a base of sweet, fortified wine referred to as sack, port, brandy, or madeira (another fortified wine). The term sack is believed to derive from the Spanish word seco meaning ‘dry’, sack was predominantly a mix of sweet Madeira wine and dry young port from which a punch was then built on top. Unfortunately, today the term sack refers to Sherry.
By the 18th century, the spit-n’-sawdust tavern of old had given way to the more learned environment of the coffee-house where punch found a new home in the middle classes. Central to the concept of the coffee-house was the use of coffee as a refreshing stimulant associated with decorous behavior. However, over time increasing numbers of them started serving alcohol and as they did so, standards of conduct rapidly declined. Many transformed themselves into exclusive gentlemen’s clubs while others became little more than taverns. One popular establishment was the aptly named London Coffee House, Punch House, Dorchester Beer and Welsh Ale Warehouse, located on Ludgate Hill near St Paul’s Cathedral as announced in The Daily Post-Boy November 4, 1731:
This is to give Notice,
That James Ashley has opened on Ludgate Hill, the London Coffee House, Punch House, Dorchester Beer, and Welch Ale Warehouse, where the finest and best old Arrack, Rum, and French Brandy is made into Punch, with the other of the finest Ingredients, viz. a Quart of Arrack made into Punch for 6s. and so in Proportion to the smallest Quantity, which is Half a Quarteen for Fourpence Halfpenny; a Quart of Rum or Brandy made into Punch for 4s. and so in Proportion to the smallest Quantity, which is Half a Quartern for Threepence, and Gentlemen may have it as soon made as a Gill of Wine can be drawn.
Neat old Arrack, Rum, and French Brandy by wholesale on the most reasonable Terms. (London Post Boy, 1731)
Opened by ex-cheese wholesaler James Ashley, The London Coffee and Punch House became the local for many famous artists, politicians, and poets of the time. Even if one had never visited the venue, passersby on Ludgate Hill Street would recognize the three iron punch bowls on ornate openwork pedestals flanking a door written with the confident words; “Pro Bono Publico, James Ashley 1731. First reduced the price of punch, raised its reputation, and brought it into, universal esteem.” By the mid-18th century, punch had truly arrived and everyone was drinking it; not only in England, but also in a young English colony soon to declare its American independence.
Punch in America
Although I am relatively sure that punch made its appearance in England’s North American colonies sometime in the 1600s, the earliest documented references I could find to drinking punch in North America come from the 1730s. In 1732, when William Byrd II of Virginia went to visit Col. Spotswood he wrote in his journal, “At night we drank prosperity to all the colonel’s projects in a bowl of rack punch, and then retired to our devotions.” (Byrd II, 1732)
Another 1730s reference to punch and an example of how highly it was thought of in Virginia comes from the unpublished biography of Peter Jefferson by Edward Hickish. In 1736, when Virginia William Randolph bought a 2400 acre tract of Crown land that happened to include a parcel his friend Peter Jefferson had his eye on. He agreed to sell Jefferson 200 acres of it for ₤50 and another 200 acres in return for, according to the deed, “Henry Weatherbornes’s biggest bowl of arrack punch to him delivered.”
Once here, punch seems to have spread rapidly throughout the colonies. In Manhattan, a group of poor whites and African slaves plotted with a white alehouse keeper to burn New York and slaughter its inhabitants – an abortive uprising known as the New York Conspiracy of 1741 that resulted in the execution of over 100 slaves and poor whites. Testimony from the court proceedings shows the plot hatched over bowls of punch. (Horsmanden, 1744) And in 1744, when Dr. Alexander Hamilton of Maryland took a trip to Maine and back for his health, he found his fellow colonials drinking punch quite liberally in just about every town he visited.
Punch also quickly made its way into politics. When George Washington stood for election to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1757, he stood on principle and refused to offer the customary free punch at his campaign rallies. He lost! The next year, he spent ₤36 and some change on liquors, almost half of it on punch. He won!
The Flowing Bowl would also help to fuel the American Revolution. In January of 1766, John Adams met with a small group of men, known as the “Loyal Nine” who would go on to be influential in the Sons of Liberty. He reported, “I was very cordially and respectfully treated by all present. We had punch, wine, pipes and tobacco, biscuit and cheese, etc. they chose a committee to make preparation for a grand rejoicing upon the arrival of the news of the repeal of the stamp act.”
Punch even made its way into the home of the President of the young United States. President John Adams, not known for his social graces, made visitors welcome with punch and other refreshments as he reports in a letter to his wife dated January 1, 1799. “We have had more Company to Day than ever upon any Occasion. Thirty or forty Gallons of Punch, Wine in Proportion: and Cake in Abundance.”
Although by the time of the Madison administration punch was beginning to fall out of favor, in lieu of the newly invented “cocktail,” we find it appearing in a description of one of Dolly Madison’s “Wednesday drawing rooms.”
“After guests had greeted the President and his wife, they moved to the dining room, where the table was piled high, mostly with sweets, including Mrs. Madison’s favorite, ice cream inside a baked pastry shell. Coffee and wine were passed, and for the guest who wanted something stronger, there was a bracing whiskey punch.” (Cheney, 2014)
A Few Punch Recipes
Our series just would not be complete unless I shared a few of the early recipes for punch that I uncovered in researching this series of posts. Try them and see why punch was the most popular drink of the 18th and early 19th century. I would give you a word of caution however. The glasses used for punch back in the period usually held something like 2-3 oz. – approximately equal to two shots – so do not try to fill up a tumbler and then wonder what happened.
Doctor Salmon’s Punch (ca. 1695)
64 oz. water
16 oz. lime juice
12 oz. sugar
48 oz. brandy
To Make Punch
Take two Quarts of Water, one Pint of Lime Juice, three-quarters of a Pound of fine Sugar, mix and dissolve the sugar, then put three Pints of choice Brandy; stir them well together, and grate in a Nutmeg. (Yield – 16 cups)
Note: If you do not have a great tolerance for sour things, you may need to increase the sugar to 1 lb. or decrease the lime juice to 12 oz.
Glasgow Punch (ca. 1807)
This recipe is somewhat different in that it does not include the 5th ingredient – spices.
6 oz. fine-grained raw sugar
26 oz. cold water
4 oz. strained lemon juice
6 or 7 oz. of strong Jamaican-style rum
To Make Punch
In a one and a half quart jug or bowl, dissolve 6 ounces of fine-grained raw sugar, such as Florida Crystals, in 6 oz. of water. Add 4 oz. strained lemon juice and 20 oz. cold water. Stir in 6 or 7 ounces of the best old Jamaica rum. Cut two well-ripened limes in half, run the cut sides around the rim of the jug or bowl and hand squeeze the juice into the mixture.
Philadelphia Fish House Punch (ca 1795)
1 pint lemon or lime juice
10 pints water
1 lb. sugar
1 ½ pints Jamaica rum
¾ pint Cognac brandy
¾ pint peach brandy
To make punch
Dissolve the sugar in the lemon or lime juice. Add the water and then the alcohol. If you want to use ice, less water may be added, or as the ice melts the punch will dilute. This can be a good thing since it makes the punch less intoxicating as the night goes on.
Richmond Quoit Club Punch (ca. 1820)
2 cups sugar
1 pint strained lemon juice
750 ml Jamaican rum
750 ml VSOP Cognac brandy
750 ml rainwater Madeira
To Make Punch
Dissolve the sugar in the lemon juice. Add the rum, Cognac, and Madeira to the mixture. Fill a punch bowl 1/3 full of ice cubes and add the liquid mixture (no water). Allow to set for 20-30 minutes before serving.
I hope you enjoyed our short foray into the history of the Flowing Bowl and possibly even the punch recipes that we provided. If you did, please take a few moments to share your thoughts on this and please give us a “like.” Also, if you try one or more of these recipes, let us know what you think. Do be careful with these however as they are from a pre-industrial time when one did not have to operate motorized vehicles or machinery after spending a few pleasant hours partaking of “the flowing bowl.”
Byrd II, W. (1732, September). A Visit to Colonel Spotswood. A Progress to the Mines, in the Year 1732.
Cheney, L. (2014). James Madison: A Life Reconsidered. New York: Penguin.
Franklin, B. (1737). Poor Richard’s Almanac. Philadelphia: Benjamin Franklin.
Horsmanden, J. D. (1744). A Journal of the Proceedings in the Detection of the Conspiracy. New York.
London Post Boy. (1731, November 4). London Post Boy.
Wondrich, D. (2010). Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl. New York: Penguin Group.