One may think that cocktails are a modern invention. Indeed, the word “cock-tail” wasn’t used until around 1800, but people have been brewing, fermenting, distilling, and mixing drinks for centuries. Go back to the funeral of King Midas of Phrygia in 700 B.C. where guests were served a mixture of wine, mead, and barley beer – doesn’t sound that great to me, but hey, even by this time people had been experimenting with combining different beverages. That funeral drink wasn’t a new idea, even in 700 B.C.! Homer, in The Iliad, even made mention of Pramnian wine mixed with grated goat cheese and barley meal. But often, at least back in those days, mixing was more along the lines of adding water to strong wine.
The spread of distillation in the Middle Ages gave a push to the art of mixology, as distilling was less refined and gave off a more fiery spirit. People would try and make the spirit more potable by adding herbs, sweeteners, or diluting with water to cool the burn.
Punch was the first true success at taming ardent spirit, and sprang from India in the early 17th Century. Punch – a derivative of the Hindi and Farsi word “panch”, which means “five” – is traditionally made with 5 ingredients:
Tea (or spice)
Whether a native drink from India or one put together by the English East India Trading sailors with Indian ingredients, it’s a drink that caught on, and by the end of the 17th Century, Punch was one of the most popular drinks in England and its colonies.
Typically served hot (great for that dreary English climate), it’s also extremely versatile, and one can see that aside from being made in a large batch, if made as a single serving, it’s basically the modern day cocktail. By the first decades of the 19th Century, it had become the norm to zazz up the typical Punch by using fancy flavoured syrups and liqueurs in place of sugar, smoothing it out with the addition of emulsifiers (such as egg whites), replacing water with wine or Champagne, and so on.
As you can see, Punch has a long history, is extremely versatile, easy to throw together, and makes for a great offering, particularly around the holidays, where people come together to celebrate and have a jolly ol’ time!
And thus, I leave you with this wee ditty from a popular 18th Century song, as quoted by David Wondrich in his book, Punch:
You may talk of brisk Claret, sing praises of Sherry
Speak well of old Hock, Mum, Cider, and Perry
But you must drink Punch if you want to be Merry