Rum Punch: Tracing 400 Years Of The Spiced Cocktail

Though today it’s more commonly associated with school dances or frat parties, the first mention of punch dates back all the way to 1632. But even this is only in a western context. Some believe that the word is derived from ancient Sanskrit or early dialects of Hindi, or perhaps even as far as ancient Persia. Whichever route the word took, the meaning is agreed as it translates to five to represent the five elements necessary to make a true punch. Sour, sweet, spice, water and of course, alcohol.

Historically, the spice that was most commonly used in punch was nutmeg and it was the popularity of the spice that brought this most valuable spice of the age from the east to the parlours of London and Paris. The long and arduous ship journeys that traders took to ferry it around the horn of Africa were the catalyst for the creation of the drink. 

Ale was a staple on board these ships to keep morale high and the sailors well-libated but as they entered the warmer climes of the Indian Ocean, their precious cache of ale began to turn and go flat. In their horror, these sailors turned to the local knowledge on the shores of the East Indies for a suitable replacement. And what they found there was punch.

Once the British sailors had acquired a taste for the spiced drink, it quickly spread through the western world, becoming a fashionable choice for artists and intellectuals of the age. The original alcohol used was often Arrack, made from the fermented sap of coconut flowers or sugarcane, and sometimes also with grain. But by 1655, rum from Jamaica had become the alcohol of choice and as the reach of the British empire spread across the Atlantic, Punch went with it. 

According to an excerpt from a 1771 book by Pehr Osbeck, Olof Torén, and Carl Gustaf Ekeberg called ‘A Voyage to China and the East Indies’, they described the recipe for a traditional punch as so:

    “It is known to almost every one how punch is made; but, that it may be observed for the future where it is made to its greatest perfection, I will mention the true proportion of its constituent parts. To a quart of boiling water, half a pint of arrack is taken, to which one pound of sugar, and five or six lemons, or instead of them as many tamarinds as are necessary to give it the true acidity, are added: a nutmeg is likewise grated into it. The punch, which is made for the men in our ship was heated with red hot iron balls which were thrown into it. Those who can afford it, make punch a usual drink after dinner. While we stayed in China, we drunk it at dinner instead of wine which the company allowed the first table.”

Over the next few centuries, the drink began to adapt and evolve as per local ingredients and preferences, but the core concept remained the same and today, Rum Punch still has a great number of admirers from all over the world and has grown to be a classic cocktail for the ages.