Play
Close

Punch

Imagine, if you can, a world without cocktails. And not just cocktails—no fizzes, no sours, no slings; no juleps, crustas or daisies. Not even a highball. Impossible, no? And yet, at the beginning of the 1600s, although distilled spirits had been in general use in Europe for at least 200 years, there was still no generally accepted way to mix them into a palatable drink. About all that you could get was a shot of your “aqua vitae”—“water of life,” the generic Latin term for distilled wine, beer, or anything else—poured into a glass of wine or a mug of beer. But then English sailors, in the Indian Ocean, thousands of miles from home and completely out of beer and wine, figured out that if you took a portion of this aqua vitae, added some lime juice to brighten it up, balanced it with a little sugar, watered the whole thing down to take out the burn and spiced it up with a scraping or two of nutmeg or a splash of rosewater, suddenly you had something very much worth drinking.

That crucial discovery took place around 1620. At first, “punch,” as this new drink came to be called, remained a sailor’s drink, one that was generally made with whatever spirits were available in tropical ports of call—palm-sap or sugarcane arrack in the East, raw rum in the Caribbean. By 1670, though, this improvised beverage had found a home in England itself. It wasn’t easy: punch was too costly for the humble alehouses where most of the common people drank, and too newfangled and industrial for the taverns frequented by the wine-drinking gentry. But in towns like London, Oxford, Bristol and Edinburgh, examples of a new, third kind of drinking establishment were popping up.

These coffeehouses, as they were called, sold coffee, of course, but they also needed something for when people wanted something a little stronger than the “soot-coloured ninny broth,” as one critic of the day termed it, that was their main stock in trade, and punch was perfect. Coffeehouses were modern establishments, places for people to gather, read newspapers (another novelty of the age) and talk about politics, religion and every other topic under the sun. Punch fit right in: put a bowl of it in the middle of the table and conversation would flow far into the night.

Of course, some changes had to be made. The sailors’ version of punch was based on ingredients that were cheap and available—in Asia and the Caribbean; in England, arrack and, for a time, rum were exotic spirits, and limes were simply unavailable. The latter were easily replaced by lemons, imported from Portugal, or sour Spanish oranges. For the spirits, there was French brandy. Cognac, if you could get it. As one English physician of the day claimed, punch properly made with “choice brandy”—i.e., cognac—“cheers the Heart, and revives the Spirits beyond any other Liquor.” What’s more, drunk moderately, it “helps Digestion, restores lost Appetite, and makes the Body profoundly Healthful, and able to resist the Assaults of all Diseases.” Indeed many sophisticated drinkers, the celebrated satirist Jonathan Swift among them, far preferred the smooth, rich Cognac version of punch to the funkier, more assertive arrack and rum versions.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, with the aid of men like James Ashley, who ran London’s most famous punch-house and became the world’s first celebrity mixologist, a bowl of punch made with Cognac and perhaps a splash of Jamaican rum for extra bouquet represented the state of the art in fancy drinking. It didn’t hurt that Ashley bought his Cognac directly from the docks, getting it before it could be adulterated or diluted.

Nor was Cognac punch reserved for the gentry: even a relative nonentity such as the small-town Sussex shopkeeper Thomas Turner, who kept a meticulous diary in the 1760s, could occasionally indulge in “an agreeable bowl” of it (it helped that he got his brandy from his friend the local excise officer, who had the advantage of confiscated smuggled goods). Over the next decades, Cognac punch would move up and down the social ladder by a few rungs, depending on the state of Britain’s relations with France. When cannon and bayonet did the talking, Cognac climbed out of reach of the aspirational classes. At other times, you would have scenes like Bob Sawyer’s little bachelor’s party in the Pickwick Papers, complete with mismatched glassware, jugs of warm Brandy Punch and a long-unpaid landlady who cuts off the hot water supply just when it’s most needed.

Whether fueled with Cognac or arrack, rum, whiskey or gin, in England, America and much of Europe punch had become the social beverage of choice, and in its heyday—from the early 1700s to the middle of the next century—evenings without number were spent clustered around the flowing bowl, talking, singing, laughing (and, of course, sometimes shouting, shoving and brawling). Punch was the foundation of modern mixology, and Cognac was there almost from the very beginning.

American Drinks

By Dickens’s time, however, there were other fun things you could do with Cognac. If punch had a fault, it was the difficulty of obtaining fresh citrus fruit all year round, particularly in remote areas. Everything else—the Cognac, the sugar, the water, the spices—was easy enough to transport and keep around. In Scotland and Ireland, drinkers learned to get by with merely a little lemon peel for their punch. In the backwoods of America, even that proved too difficult to get. But what if, instead of flavoring your liquor, sugar and water with lemon, you used the mint that grew wild instead? Or a few dashes of “bitters”—a medicinal infusion of spices, barks, roots, herbs and flowers?

By 1820, American tipplers had so taken to the mint julep and the cocktail, as these new drinks were known, that even with improved supplies of citrus they didn’t go away. Indeed, American bartenders such as Orasmus Willard of New York’s City Hotel (the first American celebrity mixologist) took the bowl of punch and shrank it down to single-serving size, so that it could take its place next to them in the new country’s busy barrooms. Americans, you see, did not drink at leisure. It was in and out; drink up and get back to work. That didn’t mean that their palates were unsophisticated, though.

At first, in the hard years that followed the Revolution, American drinkers based their juleps, cocktails and glasses of punch on the raw, native whiskey or rum from the Caribbean. But by 1820, as the country was becoming more prosperous, the spirit of choice for all three drinks was imported French brandy. Cognac, to be specific; the best of the best. (Although, it must be conceded, in the case of the cocktail imported Dutch gin came in a close second.)

In the years before the American Civil War, the Cognac-based mint julep was considered the height of the bartender’s art. In the hands of an expert like Willard or George Vennigerholtz of the famous Mansion House, Natchez, Mississippi, it was a seductive mixture of rich brandy, fine wines (Madeira, Bordeaux and various ports and sherries were all used), sugar, and, of course, copious amounts of ice, topped with architecturally-arranged thickets of mint, berries of the season, pieces of lemon and powdered sugar. Drunk through a straw in the American way, such a julep was something to be remembered until one’s dying day.

As America grew richer and more populous, however, people had less time for such delights. The julep grew simpler in preparation (although not until the end of the century did Bourbon whiskey replace Cognac as the spirit of choice) and the cocktail—a quick, simple drink to prepare and yet a delightful one to consume—took its place as the iconic American drink. In 1862, a former sailor, theatrical producer and all-around sport, now head bartender at New York’s luxurious Metropolitan Hotel, published the first book that detailed the new American school of drinking. Jerry Thomas’s Bar Tenders Guide was a watershed: after it, and with its aid, the cocktails, sours, juleps (nothing more than a simple, iced punch in a small glass) and all their other kin would belong not just to America, but to the world (indeed, by 1900 editions and imitations of his book had appeared in England, France, Germany and several other countries, even including Australia).

Among the many recipes for brandy drinks—in his saloon, the only brandies Thomas stocked were twenty- and thirty-year-old Cognacs—were the now-standard mint julep and brandy cocktail, but also such novelties as the brandy crusta, a New Orleans variation on the cocktail that added liqueur and lemon juice to the normal brandy, sugar and bitters, and the brandy smash, which was a sort of quick-and-easy, shaken variation on the julep. Cognac featured in another of the Crescent City's famed cocktails; the Sazerac, named after a popular Cognac brand of the day, Sazerac de Forge et Fils.

Over the next few decades, until Prohibition brought things to a screeching halt in 1919, American bartenders led by gents such as Harry Johnson and William Schmidt of New York, Bill Boothby of San Francisco and Henry Ramos of New Orleans, worked to refine the mixologist’s art, developing new formulae, incorporating a host of new ingredients and techniques and essentially perfecting the cocktail as we know it today. Throughout, Cognac was one of the key building blocks of the bar. Indeed, the bar at New York’s Hoffman House, reputed to be the best in the country, was famous for, among other things, the age and quality of its Cognac, which it sold at the unheard-of price of a dollar a glass.

Dr. David Wondrich

"A living iPod of drink lore and recipes" (the New York Times), or, if you prefer, a "crazy, bearded Civil War general" (Conan O'Brien), Dr. David Wondrich (he holds a PhD in Comparative Literature) is the world's foremost expert on the history of the American cocktail. He is Esquire magazine's Drinks Correspondent, and also writes for Saveur, The Malt Advocate, Bon Appetit, Gourmet, Wine & Spirits, Oprah, Real Simple, Martha Stewart's Blueprint, Marie Claire and too many others to count. He has written three books on cocktails and mixology. The most recent of these, Imbibe! From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to Professor Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar (whew!), is the first cocktail book ever to win a James Beard award. His first book, Esquire Drinks: An Opinionated and Irreverent Guide to Drinking (Hearst Books, 2002),) was awarded a Silver Ladle at Australia's biennial Jacob's Creek World Food Media Awards. Killer Cocktails: An Intoxicating Guide to Sophisticated Drinking, was published by HarperCollins 2005; among many other accolades it received, Glamour magazine named it the year's Best Drinks Guide.