It’s the chosen summer drink of thousands of thirsty kids every day, and the chosen rum-based tipple of Charles Dickens himself. You’ll find it in tiny boxes, straws included, or in an overflowing bowl heaped with green sherbet at a retro ladies’ luncheon. The beverage, of course, is punch, and it’s come a long way since British sailors first concocted it in the 17th century. Let’s take a look at the history of punch from rum-filled grog to Hawaiian.
Though it’s mainly known as a non-alcoholic beverage today, punch was invented as a beer alternative in the 17th century by men working the ships for the British East India Company. These men were accomplished drinkers, throwing back an allotment of 10 pints of beer per shipman per day. But when the ships reached the warmer waters of the Indian Ocean, the beer held in cargo bays grew rancid and flat. Once the boats reached the shore, sailors created new drinks out of the ingredients indigenous to their destinations: rum, citrus and spices.
The sailors brought punch back to Britain and soon the drink became a party staple, spreading even as far as the American colonies. Massive punch bowls were ubiquitous at gatherings in the summer months: the founding fathers drank 76 of them at the celebration following the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It’s around this time that the first mention of non-alcoholic punches appears, specifically made for ladies and children.
By the Victorian Age, those teetotalling punches ruled the day. Queen Victoria disapproved of strong drink, so alcoholic punches gradually fell out of favor. Frothy egg white-based and sherbet versions grew popular, and continued to be served to ladies who lunched until the 1950s. By that time, cocktail culture was in full effect, and it was socially acceptable for women to drink in public. Punch was relegated to the footnotes of history, only to be resurrected in the 2000s by mustachioed mixologists in cities like New York and San Francisco.