Sailors, Slaves and Sugar: The Saga of Rum Punch, a Classic Cocktail with Hidden Links to India
Decanter with Jamaica right
And spoon of silver, clean and bright.
Sugar in piece cut,
Kni[f]e, sieve and glass in order put,
Bring forth the fragrant fruit and then
We’re happy till the clock strikes ten.”
Wrote our Benjamin in the 18th century in praise of Punch, a drink popular during his times.
Punch was built over Kill-devil, more famously known as rum. While Ben Franklin was scribbling down his ecstasy, you must know that the great Atlantic was teeming with trade ships that were plying between those islands around the New World and the distant African Continent. What did they carry across as merchandise!
Towards the dark continent, their hulls were sloshing with rum contained in barrels, which they would happily sell off to the African chieftains in exchange of his people who could be brought back to West Indian islands as slaves in their plantations.
More rum, more slaves; more slaves, more rum. Sugar and filthy money were by-products that could be taken to Europe.
It was an unholy business.
But aristocrats both in Europe and America fattened themselves off the sea trade. In no time, rum became the drink in English soil knocking off the wine and ales from dinner tables. The enmity with France also contributes its bit.
Rum aficionados might have all heard quite a bit about rum punch. Historians swear that it might have its roots set in Jamaica, but the sheer number of punch varieties around the globe tells us that it has traveled quite a distance from the little island. Perhaps Barbadian rum punch, that also goes a long way back along with their neighborhood version, guides us correctly with these words: “One of Sour, Two of Sweet, Three of Strong, Four of Weak.”
Which means one part lime juice, two parts sweetener, three parts rum (preferably Barbados), and four parts water. That makes the rum punch.
Take pride fellow countrymen! There are enough theories floating around about an Indian connection. Many believe that the word ‘punch’ derived from the Hindustani word, ”panch” which means five, perhaps referring to the number of ingredients that go into a punch. Traditionally the list includes tea, lemon, sugar, water, and arrack. As the Englishmen couldn’t stand the nasty taste of our arrack they threw in whatever they could to spice up the local drink. Same happened to the West Indian rum.
An inquiry into the life of punch is not complete without knowing those punch bowls on which it was served, especially in big parties. Usually, a large bowl was placed on the table with sufficient cups and a ladle. The most famous of all punch bowls was the one made in 1767 to a group of law legislatures who stood up in defiance against the draconian English laws.
Today you can see the silver punch bowl made for the occasion by Paul Revere at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
Punch was too democratic a drink that always catered to the tastes of all classes. Pirates, highwaymen, sailors, planters, slaves, the British Navy all could relate themselves to the dark concoction in the 18th century.
It was perhaps the first global cocktail.
But the more it travelled, the more avatars it took, adapting itself to the local terrain and tastes, fruits and other nitty. When they couldn’t obtain a particular ingredient to make punch, people had any scruples to put a local ingredient in its place. Creativity went so far that you could find punch in the 19th and 20th century, without a single ingredient, the original punch was thought to be created with.
So what was the original punch like?
You ask a panel of rum experts; you will see them point their fingers towards East, West, North, South. Confused?
Take a peg of rum. Add a bit of lime juice. Some water. A bit of sugar. Toss in a few aromatic leaves. Call it ‘punch’. Sip. And please don’t ask me whether you can replace the rum with brandy and still call it rum. You know the story by now.
For one time it is all in the name.