Invented in 17th century India, this may be among the oldest “mixed drinks”
You might think punch is just a watered-down kiddie drink, fit only for holiday gatherings.
Well, let us introduce you to the Bombay Presidency Punch. Its ancestry features hard-drinking sailors, East India traders, and a Hindustani-inspired name.
Spice Islands ahoy!
Recipe: Bombay Presidency Punch
The Bombay Presidency Punch owes its name to General Sir John Gayer, who wrote down a recipe for it in 1694. Gayer was the East India Company’s governor of the “Bombay Presidency” – as the trading company’s possessions in that part of India were called. He recorded the formula for the punch that he made during his time there.
The punch was later discovered by sailors and merchants who traveled to the area looking to open up trade routes for gold and nutmeg. They mixed the locally produced spirit with citrus, sugar, and spices to create “punch” (the name might be derived from the Hindustani word paantsch, which means “five” – the number of ingredients in a typical punch of that time).
How do we know this? Cocktail historian extraordinaire David Wondrich writes about it in his wonderful book, Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl.
We’ve adapted Wondrich’s recipe to make a single-serving punch – essentially a cocktail. But we provide the full recipe in the Notes if you want to recreate this punch for a crowd. We like to serve our adaptation with ice (we think it suits modern tastes better that way).
The liquor originally used in this punch – and in most punches from Asia – is arrack, a spirit that’s usually made from sugarcane, rice, and/or palm. It tastes somewhat like a raw, minimally processed rum (with funky undertones).
Gayer specified palm arrack for this recipe (Sri Lankan coconut palm arrack works best, so we hear). Palm arrack is hard to find these days, however. In the US, it’s easier to find sugarcane arrack, especially the Batavia-Arrack van Oosten brand from Amsterdam (see the bottle in picture #2). Our favorite liquor store doesn’t stock this, but was able to order it for us.
No arrack on hand? Just substitute a strongly flavored rum that’s a bit on the raw side. The flavor of this punch won’t be “original,” but it’ll still be good.
This recipe takes about 5 minutes to prepare, and serves 1.
- 2 ounces palm arrack or Batavia-Arrack (or a substitute; see Headnote)
- 1 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
- ¾ ounce simple syrup (can increase to 1 ounce)
- 2 to 4 ounces seltzer or club soda to top the glass
- a dusting of freshly grated nutmeg and/or a lime slice for garnish (optional)
- Fill a tall glass with ice cubes. Add the liquor, lime juice, and simple syrup. Stir once or twice to combine.
- Top with fizzy water until the glass is full. Add garnish, if desired, along with straws. Serve and enjoy.
- A sprig of mint would also make a nice garnish for this drink. Or maybe one of those little umbrellas.
- Or try the garnish we like best: Float ½ ounce of Demerara 151-proof rum on top of the drink. Very untraditional, but tasty. And pretty!
- Traditional punch is made with 5 ingredients: liquor, citrus, sugar, spice (usually nutmeg, sometimes tea), and water.
- Ice wasn’t easy to come by in the 17th century, so punch was always served at room temperature or (depending on the type of punch) heated.
- So when adapting old punch recipes to serve over ice, decrease the water content – you’ll be replacing it with ice.
- Want to make a party-size version of this recipe? Here’s how: Add 8 ounces of sugar and 8 ounces of lime juice to a 3-quart bowl. Muddle the sugar and lime juice together until the sugar has dissolved. Add one 750-milliliter bottle of arrack (Sri Lankan palm arrack, if you can find it; otherwise Batavia-Arrack), plus 4 to 5 cups of water (or use a mix of water and ice equivalent to 5 cups). Stir together, and grate nutmeg over the top of the bowl.
- From the 17th through the 19th centuries, punch wasn’t particularly alcoholic. A glass of punch was roughly equivalent to a glass of fortified wine (such as port) in alcoholic content. And glasses back then were small – 2 ounces was traditional for wine glasses. (People used the same glasses for punch; those little punch cups with handles came later).
- In those days, spirits tended to be harsh (and high proof), so people diluted them with water. And most people were beer and wine drinkers, particularly in Britain. So diluting strong spirits in punch brought them down to a strength that people were accustomed to.
- Nowadays, we associate punch with holiday parties. But punch-like cocktails are fairly common. Think, for example, of the Pimm’s Cup, which is made with a bottled gin mixture that contains herb (and other) flavorings. You mix this with lemon and water and the result is, well, punch. The Tom Collins is another drink that’s essentially a punch.
- And many Tiki drinks are really punch in a glass.
- Trade was the “killer app” for sailing ships in the early modern era. Europe lusted after goods from the “Indies” (India, Indonesia, and other parts of Asia). In particular, they hungered for exotic spices (such as nutmeg, mace, and cloves). Not to mention tea. Much of Europe traded in this region, although the big players were Portugal, the Netherlands, and Britain.
- Because trading was hazardous (and the returns uncertain), investors formed commercial syndicates to spread the risk. The two most famous were the East India Company, a British organization chartered in 1600, and the Dutch East India Company, chartered in 1602. The latter issued stocks and bonds to the public, so it could be considered the world’s first publicly traded corporation.
- The two companies competed, but each soon found regions of particular interest. The British company concentrated much of its commercial activity on India, while the Dutch favored the Maluku Islands (part of Indonesia).
- The Dutch company founded an extensive trading outpost in the port city of Jayakarta, on the northwest coast of Java. They changed the city’s name to Batavia, then eventually to Jakarta.
- That’s why the main sugarcane arrack we can find these days is called Batavia-Arrack (and comes to us through Amsterdam).
Punching our Tickets
“Home, sweet home,” said Mrs Kitchen Riffs, holding up her glass.
“What?” I asked. “Has the punch gone to your head?”
“No, just raising a glass to Christopher Columbus,” said Mrs K R.
“That makes sense,” I said. “Not.”
“So glad he stumbled across our part of the world, looking for the East Indies.”
“Home of spices – and punch!” I said.
“Indeed,” said Mrs K R. “Those European explorers pulled no punches in their quest for trade.”
“Their discoveries packed a punch, too,” I said.
“And here we are today, punch drunk,” said Mrs K R. “Who knows what the future will bring?”
Can’t say. We’ll just roll with the punches.
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