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).
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.’
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.
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.’
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.
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)
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.
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.
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 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!
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.
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. 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 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.
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).