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.

The Punch Room at The Edition Hotel, London

Following my meeting with Davide Segat, the bar manager of the latest Edition Hotel in Berners Street, London at the Boutique Bar Show I went along to visit their Punch Room. Promoted as being the first ‘Punch Room’ of its kind in the modern cocktail world, I was fascinated to see what elements of the old punch rooms have been incorporated into this bar.

There are a few written descriptions of drinking punch in coffee and punch houses which describe the conviviality and discussions which took place around a glass or bowl of punch. There are, however, relatively few pictures of what a punch house looked like. Bearing in mind that punch was also served in coffee houses and there are few drawings of these, I had an image of what I expected.

The following two illustrations show how how a punch and coffee house looked. Punch bowls are stacked on shelves behind the counter where the punch is made and served by a barmaid.

Rowlandson circa 1790

The Coffee Shop, Thomas Rowlandson circa 1790 (City of Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collection)


In the first drawing by Thomas Rowlandson around 1790, the tables are separated by curtains to give an element of privacy in what looks like a crowded coffee or punch house. It is not a sedate club-like atmosphere and I can imagine how at lunchtime local workers rushing in for a pie, a pipe to smoke and a glass or two of punch.



The Coffee House Politicians

The Coffee House Politicians, anon.


In this second illustration, we see a vital element in the culture of punch drinking. The communal drinking led to debate and as such was often associated with countries with a strong democratic culture where politics could be argued out. Again there are stacks of china punch bowls behind the bar where the barmaid makes and serves the punch.

The walls appear to be panelled and groups of men are seated around the tables – although interestingly they appear to be drinking coffee not punch, and reading and discussing the days newspapers.



The punch room

The Punch Room at the Edition Hotel has adopted wooden panelling to give it an old-fashioned air along with an open fire place, the fire was lit, despite the warm evening, to contribute to the cosy atmosphere. Banquettes are placed around the walls of the room to contribute to the communal feeling, hoping to encourage customers to chat to each other and create a more open atmosphere. That groups of people can share a bowl of punch – ladled into glasses, not straws in the same bowl – further emphasises the communal nature of drinking punch.

I love the idea of creating this convivial atmosphere, and hope that in the true spirit of punch drinking some interesting conversations develop. Older pubs often have similar layout, allowing for groups to gather. My photo looks empty because I was there before the bar opened in the evening. All it needs now are some newspapers lying around for inspiration for debate!

glass of punch and bowl for 1 or 2

House Punch for 1 or 2


Segat has stocked The Punch Room with a range of old and new punch bowls and tea pots of various sizes in order to cater for different size groups from 1 to 8 people. All drinks cost £14 per person.





I tried three different punches while I was there.

bowl of punch

Bowl of House Punch

Edition Hotel House Punch. Made with dark rum, sloe gin, Jasmine tea, lemon and sugar. I queried the large bowl of ice in the middle, which, as it dissolved would dilute the punch. I was assured the bowl is constantly topped up with punch to prevent any dilution – but feel that the flavour may vary throughout the evening.

Jasmine tea is quite perfumed and the aroma was strong, its perfumed character carrying on on the palate, supported probably by the scented perfumed character of gin. The rum contributed a warm, spicy, nutty character. The sloe and lemon fruit flavours were not very evident but maybe contributed to the dry, acid finish. The pungent scented jasmine and gin character remained dominant.


milk punch

Milk Punch


Milk Punch. Made with Batavian Arrack, Somerset Cider brandy cognac, rum, green tea, lemon juice, pineapple, spices, syrup, milk. Spices, include cloves, cinnamon, angelica seeds, quite sweet and spicy. The punch had a slight vanilla character, despite there being no vanilla in the blend. I wondered if the I was actually tasting the angelica seeds.

The advantage of milk punch recipes is that when the mixture is strained, separating the whey from the liquid curds, the mix of flavours are melded and softened into one united flavour.

The menu attributes this version to Jerry Thomas, the barman and author regarded as the founder of the world of cocktails.


donde este tommy 1

Donde Este Tommy?


Donde Esta Tommy’s? Punch. (Where is Tommy?) Based on a Tommy’s Margarita made with Tequila.  Altos Blanco Tequila, is infused with lemon balm (Toronjil), lime juice, agave syrup, soda and apricot foam.

The least punch-like of all the drinks, more of a cocktail, due to the foam topping (and I am not sure how this would be served from a bowl), but a traditional punch in the spirit of its contradictions – a character much praised by writers in the past.

This was a drink full of contrasts – dry, citrus icy liquid and sweet, fruity, warm foam.

All three punches were modern, maybe based on some older recipes, but made in a cocktail style with their large range of herbs, fruits and spirits and with the style of decorating – 50% of a cocktail is in the presentation.

The menu offered a range of ten very different punches as well as straight spirits and wines. Bar food included luxury versions of chips, lobster, a selection of cheese, burgers and pork scratchings.


Punch at the Boutique Bar Show, London, 16 September 2014

Trying out a range of rums, brandies and whiskies at a trade show is a great opportunity for me to try out new flavours, learn more and give an added dimension to what could be a potentially ‘dry’ historic study of the world of punch. Luckily, I was in London on the first day of the Boutique Bar Show. Organised by Andrew Scutts, the show is relatively small, with 38 stands, aiming at promoting new and high quality drinks brands to the UK drinks industry through tastings, talks and classes on current trends, production methods and styls, as well as hosting a trade show with producers and suppliers of drinks and bar equipment. It appeals to all those working in bars, restaurants and anywhere where quality drinks are served. This was the 7th year the show was run, held at the Camden Centre, an art-deco building dating back to 1937, opposite the newly renovated St Pancras International station (views of the show below).

boutique bar show 3boutique bar show 4boutique bar show 1

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Washington’s Peach Brandy, Cherries and Punch

Making punch with peach brandy has a long history. A Caribbean punch called Mobby, primarily made with tubers, such as potatoes, is described as being made with brandy distilled from apples or peaches in 1705.[i] The famous “Fish House Punch” (rum, brandy, peach brandy, lemon or lime juice, sugar and ice) is said to have originated at the State Country Club, Schuylkill, Philadelphia in 1732. So when I heard that George Washington’s peach brandy had been re-created, I was intrigued.

1917 postcard toasting Washington's birthday on 22nd February, with punch

1917 postcard toasting Washington’s birthday on 22nd February, with punch

This postcard, from my collection, shows George Washington being toasted on his birthday with a glass of punch. The cherries are probably displayed in reference to the apocryphal story of Washington’s childhood when he owned up to having cut down his father’s cherry tree: ‘I cannot tell a lie father’ he was supposed to have declared. Instead of being punished, his father rewarded him for his honesty in admitting his crime.

Rum had been the most popular spirit in the colonies, but whiskey and brandy, made with locally grown products became more popular, especially after the War of Independence. George Washington evidently had a good head for business and, on the advice of his farm manager James Anderson, who had been involved in the distilling industry in Scotland before immigrating to America, he built a large distillery with five stills at Mount Vernon over the winter of 1797-1798. Within two years the distillery was producing nearly 11,000 gallons, making it the largest whiskey distillery in America at the time. The most common beverage produced was a rye-based whiskey, twice distilled for common whiskey, four times distilled for a more expensive version. Some were flavoured with cinnamon or persimmons. Apple, peach and persimmon brandies were also produced. His accounts indicate that peach brandy was sent up to Washington’s house for his personal use.

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Drinking dilemmas – space, culture and identity – part II

Unfortunately I could not make this conference, but the paper which looked of most relevance to me was Sarah Morrow of Boston’s paper on “Shamrocks, Sombreros, and the Stars and Stripes: Ritual Drinking on Nationalistic Holidays and the Creation of Cultural Identity”

Her abstract said: This thesis examines ritual drinking practices on the nationalistic holidays St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, and American Independence Day. The objective of this study was to discover who celebrates these holidays, how they celebrate, and why they celebrate. It also sought to understand how alcohol is used as a tool and how extreme drinking is encouraged by participants as a mode of community formation. Employing anthropological methods, I conducted participant observations on all three holidays in Boston, Massachusetts. Through these observations, it became clear that young adults celebrated these nationalistic holidays through ritualistic practices that included stylized modes of dress, the collection and use of material artifacts, the liminal experience of secular pilgrimage, and ritualized actions that facilitated processes of assimilation and acculturation.

Punch has come to be closely related with several national days with certain recipes being closely identified with national traditions such as Swedish punsch, Mexican Ponche Navideño,  and Feuerzangenbowle (flaming punch) from Germany served at New Year.