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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John, you offer us a wonderful repertoire of drinks and its history. Prost!
Hi Gerlinde, this was a fun post to write! So much to learn about punch. :-) Thanks for the comment.
wow that looks really beautiful...great photography too, John.
Hi Angie, tastes good, too! :-) Thanks for the comment.
Exotic! You really think up the most amazing subject matter. I've read a few books on the mutual culinary influences between the English and the peoples of the Indian sub-continent. I've also read a history of ice. But I don't remember this
best... mae at maefood.blogspot.com
Well this "punch" certainly sounds refreshing and delicious, love the story. Thanks John!
I've never heard of arrack but now I want to try it! And I need to try this drink, too. I love that it's such an old recipe!
What a fabulous post and I am so intrigued by this cocktail! Not only is it old but very 'ethic' lol. Very cool. I also never heard of arrack. Sounds wonderful and great photos!
Hi Mae, really enjoyed this drink, and writing the post. Loads to say about punch -- much more interesting than I had ever imagined. Thanks for the comment.
Hi Cheri, this is fun stuff, isn't it? :-) Thanks for the comment.
Hi Kelsie, arrack is worth tracking down. Really interesting, funky flavor. :-) Thanks for the comment.
Hi Evelyne, this is your sort of drink -- good flavor and good history. :-) Thanks for the comment.
I've never had palm arrack or Batavia-Arrack before. The cocktail sounds tasty!
Hi Pam, we hadn't had arrack either until about a month ago. Fun stuff! And this is a really tasty drink. :-) Thanks for the comment.
I love all the history behind your creations - so interesting and the punch sounds lovely!
Hi Tricia, drinks history is really interesting, isn't it? So much to learn! :-) Thanks for the comment.
Quite the educational post! Arrack is new to me as well. I'd love to try a sip of this historic drink as I bask in the coastal sunshine.
What a fun drink. I love working with new liquors. Where did you find the arrack?
Hi Deb, this is a perfect summer sipper. :-) Thanks for the comment.
Hi Pamela, isn't this neat? Good flavor, too. Our favorite wine/liquor store was able to order this for us. You can also find it mail order -- DrinkupNY is our favorite mail order source. T Hanks for the comment.
Very interesting. I am familiar with arak, an anise-flavored alcoholic beverage traditionally consumed in Eastern Mediterranean and North African countries, but not Batavia-Arrack. At first I though it was merely a spelling difference, then I read that strong rum is a good replacement. The strongly licorice-flavored arak I've had could never be substituted with rum. So I googled it and discovered these two spirits are indeed quite different. Thanks for the new knowledge! GREG
My husband has been all about making unique mixed drinks these days, so I am going to really just have to show him your entire blog!
Interesting history, used to love those tiki drinks! I've heard of palm arrack as I knew someone from Sri Lanka. And your drink sounds great!
Hi Greg, yeah, arak and arrack are quite different. I haven't had arak -- yet. :-) Thanks for the comment.
Hi GiGi, you should! No doubt he'll enjoy it. :-) Thanks for the comment.
Hi Pam, tiki drinks are wonderful! We love them. :-) Thanks for the comment.
Great little history lesson, thank you! It does look like a refreshing beverage for sure. I have my FIL's grandparents flatware (probably from the 1800s) and it too is quite a bit smaller than our present size, I wonder why things were smaller back in the day?
Hi Eva, good questions about the size of things. It'd be fun to research that! Thanks for the comment.
Looks good.. being of Indian origin I haven't even heard of this drink. I guess you learn something new everyday! :)
Hi Nisha, I was rather surprised to learn of the origin of this, too. Always fun to learn! Thanks for the comment.
It looks like another great cocktail post. I love reading the history of each of your cocktails. Always so interesting! Thanks for sharing!!
What a beautiful bevie, your photography is lovely. :) And I get to learn some stuff too.
Hi Dawn, this has a really interesting flavor -- good stuff! Thanks for the comment.
Hi Anna, learning stuff is good. :-) Thanks for the comment.
What a brilliant story! I love how you do your research and can explain the origins of different cocktails. Batavia-Arrack is a totally foreign name but I have plenty of limes on the tree so must go searching for some. Otherwise there is always rum in the cupboard. Perfect for a Friday night pick me up :D
Hi Merryn, I'll bet you have a good chance of finding Batavia-Arrack at a decent liquor store in your neck of the woods. But rum is just fine -- somewhat different flavor, but good. Thanks for the comment.
I think I need one of those little umbrellas in this drink and a nice pool to sit by. I am happy just thinking about it :)
Hi Dahn, a tall drink, cocktail umbrella, and pool are a wonderful combo. :-) Thanks for the comment.
Wow, I've never heard of arrack, John. A fascinating and fun post, as always. Many thanks xx
Such a fun, exotic cocktail! I'll keep this in mind if I ever host an Indian themed book club or dinner party. I love making specialty cocktails when I entertain :)
I love the look of this and the beautiful pastel colour.
Sounds like an absolutely delicious and refreshing cocktail!
Wow! This beverage really looks delightful, John! ;)
Hi Lizzy, I had kinda/sorta heard about it, but didn't really know anything about it until a month or two ago. Fun stuff! Thanks for the comment.
Hi Liz, haven't actually had this with Indian food, but think it'd pair extremely well. It'd be a fun drink to serve! Thanks for the comment.
Hi Caroline, that color is lovely, isn't it? Flavor is, too. Thanks for the comment.
Hi Amy, it is, it is. :-) Thanks for the comment.
Hi Agness, it's a fun and tasty one! Thanks for the comment.
Punch is such an underappreciated drink. I recently had a cocktail with some warm spice in it and loved it. Never had anything like it before.
Hi Laura, spices can be really good in cocktails! And punch. of course. :-) Thanks for the comment.
I can't tell you how delighted I was to read this post John. Punch is such an interesting beverage to add to any repertoire especially one with such a spicy history!!! Thank you so much for sharing the recipe and history.
I hope all is well in your corner of the world and that you and Mrs. K.R. are enjoying the warm weather. Thanks again, John...
Hi Louise, love the book! And punch. :-) I've learned tons and tons -- more will be forthcoming at some point in the future. :-) Thanks for the comment. And book, of course!
I think this punch really packs it! I love a good punch and have no doubt this would be in that category. Now it's time to have a big party as I have a big punch bowl laying around!
Hi Abbe, always fun to dust off a punch bowl and fill it with something good. Which this is. :-) Thanks for the comment.
A punch from the 1600's? What a great find. Bet that book is a fun read, especially for a man that loves the history of drink. :) Nutmeg? That's different and interesting enough to pique my curiosity. Thanks John!
Hi MJ, the nutmeg is pretty good in this! Worth trying, if you make this. :-) Thanks for the comment.
I love reading the history almost as much as I look forward to trying the punch!
Hi Jeff, we LOVE cocktail history! We didn't drink them for years (beer and wine, thank you very much) but just enjoyed the history. Then one day we decided heck, why not try some of these beauties? How bad can they be? And the rest is, well, history. :-) Thanks for the comment.
I have never heard of arrack...and this punch sure sounds an looks awesome...refreshing with a touch of spice...
Enjoy your weekend John :)
Hi Juliana, arrack isn't easy to find in the US, so most people haven't heard of it. Good stuff, though! Thanks for the comment.
How fun and exotic, delicious, and refreshing this Bombay presidency punch is. And absolutely loving the addition of spices here.
Hi Anu, spices in drinks aren't that common, but they're really good! (It's actually one of the functions that bitters play.) Thanks for the comment.
This looks so refreshing. I haven't a clue what the first ingredient t is though. I'll have to look it up.
Hi VIcki, arrack is fun stuff -- very interesting flavor. :-) Thanks for the comment.
Looks delicious. Perfect for a summer evening.
Beautiful, tropical and super refreshing! I bet it tastes like a tropical paradise.
Hi Amalia, this is so cool and refreshing -- wonderful at this time of the year! Thanks for the comment.
Hi Browning, paradise in a glass! :-) Thanks for the comment.
Though it is always a fruit punch for me, since I do not take alcoholic drinks, I enjoyed reading the story behind this drink.
Hi Taruna, the history is interesting, isn't it? Thanks for the comment.
Your cocktail photos are always so stunning. Right out of a magazine!
What a beautiful cocktail and what a history. I love reading the histories of drinks / dishes it makes them even more interesting to me.
Hi Mimi, gosh thanks for that very kind comment!
Hi Emma, love the flavor of this, but the history is 5 times as interesting! Thanks for the comment.
Now that's a pretty sip! And arrack is entirely new to me. Thanks for introducing me to a new spirit.
Hi Carolyn, always good to learn about new stuff. :-) Thanks for the comment.
I always love learning a few things about a drink or a food and here is definitely the place for the drinks! This punch is not kiddie at all and definitely not boring!
Hi Katerina, definitely not kiddie! :-) Thanks for the comment.
Looks so refreshing John! Why is it that everything tastes a little more punchy tropical if you add an umbrella...LOL Wishing you a relaxing summer.
Hi Bobbi, that little umbrella is important! :D Thanks for the comment.
Really? I would've just naturally thought you were cocktail folk from the get-go. Very interesting.
Hi Jeff, really. :-) Oh, we'd sometimes order a drink -- say, a Margarita at a Mexican restaurant. But didn't know how to make them, and never made them at home. That's changed, obviously. :-)
Hmmm...Not sure how I missed this post....glad I discovered it. Love the photos.
Hi DEbra, this is such a good drink -- worth a try. :-) Thanks for the comment.
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