Come landlord fill a flowing bowl until it does run over,
Tonight we will all merry be -- tomorrow we’ll get sober .
John Fletcher, Rollo Duke of Normandy, Act II. Sc. 2., circa 1612
The problem has bedeviled hosts since time immemorial: how to best keep the whistles of your guests wet whilst enjoying your own shindig? After a certain age, the college solution of laying out a keg and a handle of this or that along with what mixers you might afford begins to feel a touch inadequate. But wed yourself to mixing cocktails for your guests and you end in the unenviable position of spending the bulk of your night behind the stick, shaking and stirring up the fancies of your friends with little time to mingle and indulge your own thirst (or, worse, continuous nips from your bottles take you too far into intoxication, too fast).
Fortunately, the solution is at least 400 years old, versatile and, with just a little forethought and preparation, simple and delicious. It is found in the flowing bowl, the delights of which spring from the murky history of colonization, take firm root in the savageries of empire and come into their own in the wilds of early America.
It can be safely assumed that as distillation was discovered, someone set to doctoring the resulting spirit with alacrity; it is fairly easy to make liquor (boil some beer or wine and somehow catch the steam and re-condense it), but it is quite difficult to make palatable liquor. There are records of distillation occurring in Europe and parts of Asia and what we now call the Middle East as far back as the 15th Century, and archeological digs at the headwaters of the Indus River in what is now Pakistan revealed stills that date back to the time of Christ. Given that Alexander the Great found sugarcane growing in the same region, and that limes and many spices are native to the area, it is not unlikely that a proto-rum punch was being consumed somewhere on the Indian subcontinent a couple of thousand years ago.
By the 1600s, accounts of punch drinking turn up regularly in the chronicles of Englishmen out working the colonial beat. Many of them claim that the drink was consumed by the “natives” (though there are no records written by the colonized that mention any punch drinking prior to the arrival of the English), and there are several accounts that claim that the word Punch itself comes from the Hindi, पाँच, pronounced paanch and meaning ‘five.” This has some plausibility, as there are frequently (though not always) five ingredients in classic early punches: strong spirits, citrus, sugar, spices and water.
To greatly simplify: somewhere in the process of building an Empire, English sailors took a liking to mixing those five things together, brought it home where it became fashionable, and spread it to wherever they carted canon and dropped anchor. By the time of the American colonies, there was already sugarcane and citrus helpfully planted by the Spanish in the Caribbean and a healthy local traffic in rum (and slaves) that made Punch the drink commonly found in the American tavern. Indeed at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the delegates’ rather impressive bar tab included seven bowls of alcoholic punch so large that “ducks could swim in them.” This is not an accident. Many of our early statesmen were vintners, brewers and distillers, but they were also frequently soldiers, and there was a great tradition, lasting until even the Civil War, of American regiments coming up with their own (frequently sneakily deadly, and often secret) punch recipes.
By the middle of the 1800s, the short and snappy cocktail nearly killed off punch. It only survived as a holiday indulgence or as a sickly sweet non-alcoholic drink made with sherbet and 7-up. And, that, really, is a shame. Because taking the time to assemble the ingredients for a punch and setting out a bowl of the stuff for your friends can well lubricate a gathering, but without the massive alcoholic intake that would occur if you were slamming back Old Fashioneds or Martinis. It is somehow more convivial and, depending on the spirits used, the citrus at hand and the spices employed, various and delicious in flavor. Punch can be made with gin or rum, whiskey or tequila, Mezcal or Cognac. It could be made -- though why bother? -- with Vodka. It can be a simple affair or it can be fancified with cordials, liqueurs, fancy fruits and bubbly wine.
The first step in preparing your punch is to create what practioners of the punchy arts refer to as the oleo saccharum, by removing the peels from your citrus (avoiding the pith) and mixing them in with the quantity of sugar you will be using. Best done a day in advance, the sugar will leach out the aromatic and flavorful oils from the citrus peels, creating a fragrant sugar mixture that forms the base of your punch. Then it is a matter of mixing in the remainder of your ingredients, pouring it all into a bowl along with, when available, a large hunk of ice, and providing cups and a ladle. If preparing a punch from what you have at hand, the Barbadian rhyme, "One of Sour, Two of Sweet, Three of Strong, Four of Weak,” is a great starting place. The sour is your citrus, the sweet your sugar, the strong your spirit, and the weak water (or, better, tea). These proportions will rarely steer you wrong.
But, in honor of Guardians of the Galaxy, we offer you something more stout. Here is Chatham Artillery Punch, which according to The Augusta Chronicle is so strong that “As a vanquisher of men its equal never has been found.”
Chatham Artillery Punch
2 Cups Light Raw Sugar
750 ml bottle VSOP Cognac (Pierre Ferrand 1840 would be an excellent choice)
750 ml bottle bourbon (make it something nice, but save the Pappy Van Winkle for sipping)
750 ml bottle Jamaican Style Rum (Hamilton Jamaican Pot Still Black Rum or something aged from Appleton will work here)
3 bottles chilled brut champagne (Gruet Blanc de Blanc from New Mexico would be a budget-friendly choice here. Real champagne is always best.)
A day in advance, prepare your oleo saccharum by mixing the peels of your lemons and the sugar. Reserve your peeled lemons for juicing. When ready to serve, juice your lemons until you have one pint of juice. Add that juice to your sugar mixture and stir until all the juice is dissolved. Strain the sweetened juice mixture into an empty 750 ml bottle and top up with water until the bottle is full. Seal and refrigerate until cold.
Fill a 2 ½ gallon punch bowl with finely cracked or crushed ice, pour in your cold, sweetened lemon juice mixture and add the rum, bourbon and Cognac. Top off with three bottles of champagne and stir gently to combine. Serves a multitude.