Champagne Punches and Cocktails

Champagne cocktails served today have their roots in some of the earliest punch recipes. Punch Royal, made with wine, including wines from Champagne, was more delicate than the stronger concoctions made with arrack, brandy or rum. However, the champagne we know today, and which gives modern cocktails their distinctive fizz, is a relatively recent style. Looking at descriptions of the original wine suggests that champagne was originally included to introduce acidity and some alcohol. Continue reading

Heating Spiced Wines and Beers in Britain

Early 1900s, mulled wine on the ski slopes

Early 1900s, German card, mulled wine on the ski slopes

Mulled wine, for many, sums up festive cheer and relaxing après-ski especially at Christmas. Hot spiced drinks have a long history; popular throughout Europe during the cold winter months since wine and beers were first made, especially before tea, coffee and hot chocolate were introduced. As mulled wine is defined by its being heated, I am here looking more closely at the process of heating.

Often in literature the mulled wine is simply ‘prepared’ with little reference as to how it is heated. The heat is important, and as Dicken’s reference to ‘Smoking Bishop’ (a type of mulled wine) in A Christmas Carol (1842) shows, the image of the steam from the hot wine is both cheerful and heart-warming.

The basic Roman recipe for hot wine, calda, simply added hot water, a method which remained as a ‘quick fix’ for hot wine until the nineteenth century. Richer recipes, such as that in Apicus, had wine sweetened with honey and spices. In Medieval times hot, spiced wines were called piment or hypocras; expensive ingredients of sugar, spices and wine made them the drink of the rich.

Continue reading

Drinking Like a Fish with Punch and Cocktails

The use of fish as a decorative feature on a punch bowl is not, at first, an obvious choice. Although sometimes drunk with anchovy toasts, salmon, fried whitebait or oysters (in Britain at least), this does not seem to be the reason for fish decorations.

Instead, it appears that the use of fish decorations on British punch bowls was associated with alcohol and the imagery of being as drunk as a fish.

wincanton fish punch bowl

London, Bristol or Wincanton delft blue and manganese punch bowl c. 1750

The expression ‘to drink like a fish’ has long been popular in Britain to indicate drinking a large amount of alcohol. It was first recorded in 1640, appearing in Fletcher and Shirley’s stage comedy The night-walker, or the little theife: ‘Give me the bottle, I can drink like a Fish now, like an Elephant.’ In William Congreve’s 1700 play The Way of the World, he  says ‘Thou art both as drunk and as mute as a fish.’

Bristol ware fish punch bowl circa 1730-40

nest of fish punch bowls

Delftware with a plain manganese exterior with fish

Continue reading

French Governor – A new Classic Cocktail?


Omer Gazit-Shalev of Bar 223 adding the final ingredient, champagne, to the French Governor cocktail

Last week I was invited to meet Omer Gazit-Shalev manager of Bar 223 in Tel-Aviv, creator of a new cocktail, French Governor, winner of the first national round of the Bacardi Legacy Competition.

This competition seeks creation of an original cocktail with an interesting background story, an appealing drink with the potential to become a classic cocktail. And of course the usual flair preparing and presenting the cocktail. As this competition is sponsored by Bacardi, the main requirement is that the cocktail include one of two staple bar ingredients: Bacardi Superior rum (white) or Bacardi Carta Oro rum (golden).

Continue reading

Robert Burns and Punch

This Sunday, 25th January 2015, will be Burn’s Night or Burn’s Supper, when Scots around the world celebrate the life and works of their national poet, Robert Burns (1759-1796). This year it falls on his actual birthday, but otherwise takes place on the nearest Sunday. Traditionally a haggis is piped in with the bagpipes, whisky is drunk and Burns’s poems recited.

Around 1780, there were about eight legal distilleries and 400 illegal ones. In 1823, Parliament introduced an Excise Act designed to encourage the licensed distilleries and ease out the hundreds of small illegal operations. Technology improved whisky production with the introduction of the column still in 1831. This was a less expensive method of production and made for a smoother, and more commercially attractive drink. Punch, or toddy, made with whisky, hot water or tea, honey or sugar, and sometimes lemon, was a popular form of drinking whisky. Continue reading

Shared Traditions of Wassail and Punch

On Sunday 28th December 2014, my friend Joanna Crosby (who is working on her PhD on the social and cultural history of apples and the orchard, and who founded the Trumpington Community Orchard) was interviewed by Lucie Skeaping on BBC Radio 3’s Early Music Show in a programme called Here We Come a-Wassailing (no longer available). As Joanna recounted the history of the drink wassail, wassailing songs of each period were performed, such as Here We Come A-wassailing:

Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green;
Here we come a-wand’ring
So fair to be seen.
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you
a happy New Year.

Continue reading

Rakomelo – a type of hot Greek punch

Last night I was serving up a hot Greek-style punch called rakomelo at a Christmas party hosted by a local Greek shop. Rakomelo is quite different to North European and American mulled wine, being more alcoholic (commercial ready-bottled brands need a minimum of 20% alcohol) and with little or no fruit, the honey and spice character more pronounced. Homemade rakomelo can be much stronger!


Different styles of ancient Greek kraters – the forerunner of the punch bowl?

serving wine Banquet_Louvre_Kylix_G133_by_Cage_Painter

A slave boy dipping a jug into a krater to fill up with wine to serve. (Louvre)

In ancient Greece, wine was diluted and cooled by being mixed with water, sweetened and spiced if necessary, and prepared in large kraters, before being served to guests from the krater.

The use of distilled alcohol did not begin to enter the repertoire of drinks until the late 13th century, and then primarily for medicinal purposes, and these drinks have survived as the sweet herb infused liqueurs originally made in monasteries.

Following the Fourth Crusade in 1205, the Franks and Venetians invaded Greece. The Franks remaining in control of the Peloponnese until 1430. Distillation of spirits was introduced, and, as elsewhere in Europe the spirits were mixed with existing medicinal drinks such as vrastari – an infusion of herbs and spices sweetened with honey, and a Rakomelo-style drink was created.

raki distillation

Distillation of raki

Rakomelo has remained a popular speciality on the Cyclades islands of Crete and Amorgos. In Crete, raki is called tsikoudia (the name raki, may refer to Iraq and may date to the Ottomans when they conquered Greece after the Franks).

Distilleries were encouraged by the Greek government in 1920, when special permits were given to farmers to distill raki for additional income. Raki is a neutral flavoured eau de vie made from the grape pomace, the residue from making wine, is distilled to form a clear spirit. Kazanemata, or cauldron feasts, are the harvest festivities which take place in Crete at the end of the wine fermentation when the raki is distilled.

Rakomelo is made by infusing the spices, such as cinnamon, cardamom, anise or pepper, and herbs, such as thyme, in honey (melo) and water to create a sweetened infusion, vrastari, before adding the raki. Psimeni raki uses sugar instead of honey, with more spices. Commercial versions include Mastihato (with mastic), Lemontelo (with lemon) and Portomelo (with orange).

Rakomelo is traditionally served hot during the winter and cold in summer.

The proportions, based on a single serving are:

  • 10cl of raki
  • 1 tablespoon of honey. Greek thyme honey gives a lovely flavour.
  • ½ a cinnamon stick
  • 1 clove

For a quicker version, put all the ingredients in a pan, then heat this slowly and gently. The rakomelo is ready to serve when the honey melts and steam starts to rise. If the drink is allowed to boil, some of the alcohol will evaporate. Before serving, remove the spices. (Using powdered spices will give a powdery deposit on the surface of the drink.)

As an alternative to more traditional mulled wine, I made a lighter, fruitier and less alcoholic rakomelo by adding the juice of half an orange for every 10cl of raki, a pinch of thyme and water to taste. To serve a crowd I multiplied the quantity and served this from a jug.The final taste was sweet, strong and spicy – with the thyme flavours giving an attractive balance to the sweetness of the honey.

20141221_164429228_iOS  20141221_164537383_iOS  20141221_164627930_iOS

Although sometimes described as Greek or Raki punch, with its blend of sweet, strong and weak, it does not normally include include the citrus-acid element of punch.


Christmas punch and Charles Dickens

There are many traditions of Christmas punch in Europe, north America and south America, involving special ingredients for celebration and, in the northern hemisphere, an emphasis on a warming drink with symbolic flames for the darkest and coldest nights of the year.

The middle decades of the nineteenth century in Britain were the heyday of hot Christmas punch, popularized in fiction with descriptions of a white, snowy Christmas with familial cheer around a fire, and plentiful food and drink.  An 1826 nostalgic portrait of a country squire depicted him as celebrating feast days such as Christmas with ‘a bowl of strong brandy punch, garnished with a toast and nutmeg’ with neighbours ‘round a glowing fire, and told and heard the … tales of the village.’


Illustration by John Leech for the 1843 edition of ‘A Christmas Carol’ showing Scrooge serving steaming punch by the fire

In Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843) Scrooge ‘sees’ a vision of how Christmas should be, where the feast is topped by ‘seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam.’ This novel had a major impact in both Britain and America on the Christmas image, with the feeling of good will to neighbours, bountiful feasts and, of course, the Christmas bowl of punch.

In 1847 Dickens gave his recipe for a flaming Christmas rum-based punch in a letter:

“To make three pints, take a strong, common basin (which may be broken, in case of accident, without damage to the owner’s peace or pocket) and in it place the finely sliced rinds of three lemons, a double-handful of sugar lumps, a pint of dark rum and a large wine glass of brandy. Set alight and allow to burn for three or four minutes (extinguish by covering with a lid). Add the juice of three lemons and a quart of boiling water. Stir, cover, leave for five minutes and stir again. Taste and sweeten if necessary, but observe that it will be a little sweeter presently. Pour into an ovenproof jug or bowl and cover with a leather cloth* . Place in a hot oven for 10 minutes. Remove the lemon rind before serving.”

*Nowadays grease-proof paper could be used to replace the leather cloth.

Dickens’s reference to the punch taking on a sweeter taste is due to the burning of the alcohol. Depending on the length of time the drink is allowed to burn, this reduces the liquid content of the drink, concentrating the flavours to make the taste richer and deeper.

Mr Micawber Makes Punch

An illustration from Dickens’s ‘David Copperfield’ showing Mr Micawber making punch

Punch features again in Dickens’s David Copperfield (1850), in chapter 28 ‘Mr Micawber’s Gauntlet’ with this wonderful description of Mr Micawber forgetting his worries as he immerses himself in the making of a steaming bowl of rum punch.

“I never saw a man [Mr. Micawber] so thoroughly enjoy himself amid the fragrance of lemon-peel and sugar, the odour of burning rum, and the steam of boiling water, as Mr. Micawber did that afternoon. It was wonderful to see his face shining at us out of a thin cloud of these delicate fumes, as he stirred, and mixed, and tasted, ….”

In the novel Christmas at the Cross Keys (1853, by Keller Deene / Charlotte Smith), the Christmas punch is hot and included port, but was not flamed: ‘He put in port wine, lemons, sugar, brandy, spice, and rum, and hot water at discretion.’

But flaming punch was obviously a popular Christmas tradition, with Frenchman Louis Blanc writing in January 1863, of the opulence of an English Christmas at which was served ‘flaming bowls of punch.’

Thanksgiving Greetings and Punch



There are few references to punch served at Thanksgiving. In 1970 and 1971 the following recipe for Thanksgiving Punch appeared in both Life Magazine and New York Magazine. The inclusion of cranberry juice would certainly have given the punch the red colour seen in this card from 1907.

Thanksgiving Punch

Mix together in a punch bow ½ cup (4oz) lemon juice, ¼ cup (2 oz) sugar, 1 cup (8oz) each of cranberry juice, orange juice and strong tea. Then add 1 ‘fifth’ bottle (25.6 oz) of white Puerto Rican Rum and a dozen cloves. Introduce ice cubes to chill the punch. Decorate with thin lemon slices. (Serves 15)

Judging Punch at The Great Scottish Shake Off, Boutique Bar Show, Edinburgh

Great Scottish Shake Off

The Boutique Bar Show in Edinburgh on 22 October 2014 was a busy trade show, where what seemed like the entire bar and cocktail world of Scotland met, chatted and tasted.

The Show closed with the lively ‘Great Scottish Shake Off’, a competition between regional bar teams to create a gin-based punch.

The competition was held in front of a lively audience in a side aisle of the Mansfield Traquair, a beautiful former church. I was asked to judge the competition with two other judges, Adrian Gomes, head bartender at the 10 Dollar Shake in Aberdeen and Scott Gemmell, managing director of the LA Group.


Scott Gemmell (l), Elizabeth Gabay (me – centre) and Adrian Gomes (r) – the team of judges

Each team had a set time in which to present, make and serve the judges with the finished punch.

As judges, we obviously had to consider the taste of each punch, but also an important part of the competition was the story behind how the punch was designed and created.

We also considered the crowd factor, confidence, product knowledge, teamwork and method of serving and presentation.

The four teams put in a passionate and talented performances of making their punches and achieved highly enjoyable results.

See the proceedings of the competition, with results and tasting notes.

Painting of making punch

Making punch with friends in the 18th century, as imagined

Eighteenth century punch makers created an art in the making of ‘the noble bowl of punch’, with descriptions of making punch comparable to a tea ceremony. The performance started with one person blending the sherbet of the acid juice and sugar to get the right balance. Others were invited to assess this balance between sour and sweet. Punch clubs often had ‘assessors’, who were formally given this role. After their decision, discussion among the participants was an important element in the creation of the punch – to agree the amount of alcohol and water to create the desired alcoholic strength.

This Great Scottish Shake Off competition showed how difficult it is to distinguish between cocktails and punch, as they use similar ingredients and share a theatrical preparation.