Come fill up the Bowl With Liquor that fine is And much more divine is Then Wine with their Art . . . The Brandy be Rising Punch cheers the Heart. 18th-century drinking song
Punch does cheer the heart and also the soul and sometimes it tickles right down to the toes. The battle to produce a punch that would knock the socks off everyone in the room was joined in the 1700s and it hasn't ended yet.
It was then that punch first came to Western society -- as word and as drink -- from the East Indies, a corruption of the Hindu word for five (five ingredients). It rapidly came to mean any brew compounded of any liquirs the brewer thought to throw in. There were rum punches and brandy punches and punches based on arrack -- a liquor distilled from rise, sugar and dates, with spices and fruit juice.
One such must have been potent, indeed, since it was the occasion of a land transfer between William Randolph and Thomas Jefferson's father. In 1738 Randolph deeded over 200 acres of land in consideration of the "biggest Bowl of Arrack Punch" the keeper of Raleigh's Tavern could produce.
Acid fruit was distilled into shrubs; milk was added and you had a milk punch; hot water turned it into a toddy; eggwhites, whipped up, sugared and folded into the yolks formed the base of everyone's favorite holiday eggnog; The rackety heroes of two books popular in the 1820s lent their names to a punch called Tom and Jerry, and even the sickroom had its form of punch: caudle, a sort of alcoholic gruel.
Punch in its many forms is to the drinking world what soup is to the eating world: It stretches. Now, with the holidays upon us and numerous friends to wish good cheer, it is time to get out all the old punch recipes, to dust off the punch bowl (or rent one) and invite people to a punch party. Eggnog is easy. Every cookbook has a recipe, or you could buy cartons of the stuff and add rum, whiskey, brandy, alone, or in combination. Plus nutmeg, of course.
You could warm up cider, spirit it with rum, spice it with cloves, cinnamon sticks and slices of orange. You could beg a friend to reveal the recipe of The Famous Family Punch.
Or you could offer a concoction that probably sent more than one colonist home from a Virginia reel reeling. The recipe comes from an eating club founded in 1732 (and still active), which came to be known informally as the Fish House, and their brew, naturally, as Fish House Punch. The club kept the recipe secret until about 1900 at which point they let the rest of us in on it. Before the official recipe appeared, however, enough people had come up with their own, similar versions so that it is entered much earlier in a Southern family's recipe book with the injunction, "Walter says 'Look out for swell Head next morning.'" Walter wasn't kidding.
The following proportions serve 16: In a large bowl, stir 2 cups strained lemon juice with 1 cup granulated sugar until the sugar dissolves. Add 4 cups dark rum, 2 cups Cognac, 1 1/2 cups water and 1/4 cup peach brandy. Chill, covered, overnight. To serve, pour over a block of ice in a chilled punch bowl.