A Vintage Cocktail That Packs A Punch Punch bowls are back, but they're not filled with sugary juice and cheap booze. Drink historian David Wondrich pays homage to the "monarch of mixed drinks" in his new book, Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl.
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A Vintage Cocktail That Packs A Punch

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A Vintage Cocktail That Packs A Punch

A Vintage Cocktail That Packs A Punch

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We have a holiday recipe book called "Punch: The Delights and Dangers at the Flowing Bowl." But this bowl is not flowing with lime sherbet and ginger ale. This is more like Mr. Micawber's punch from Charles Dickens' "David Copperfield," a hot and steaming bowl of lemon, sugar and spirits that made Micawber's face shine as if it had been varnished all over.

Punch was invented for British sailors, says drink historian David Wondrich. Sailors were entitled to 10 pints of beer per day. But when they sailed into the tropics, the beer spoiled. They turned to punch.

Professor DAVID WONDRICH (Historian/Author, "Punch: The Delights and Dangers at the Flowing Bowl"): They made it with local ingredients in India and Indonesia in the early 1600s. They were 13,000 miles away from any source of English beer or wine and they had nothing to drink. And English sailors respond very poorly to that.

WERTHEIMER: We met David Wondrich at Death + Company, a New York bar which looks like an updated speakeasy, and actually serves punch. Wondrich arrived with bottles of booze and a bag of lemons, and mixed up two kinds of punch from his book.

The first was the oldest one he writes about: "Meriton Latroon's Bantam Punch," made with an evil looking black liquor called arrack from Indonesia, distilled from the sap of palm trees. He stirred it up and we tried it.

Prof. WONDRICH: This is, you know, a flavor that is not tasted very often over the last 300 years. So, well, cheers.


Prof. WONDRICH: Mm-hmm.

WERTHEIMER: There's a faint whiff of tires in there.

Prof. WONDRICH: Yeah, but thats the arrack. It's got a little bit of rubberiness to it. But it's also got a kind of a great fragrance to it. This is a pretty challenging punch too, because it's very old-school. But it's also, in the modern culinary world, these are the kind of flavors that people are starting to resurrect.

WERTHEIMER: Now, in some of the recipes, you talk about the clarity of the punch - that its a clear and delicate flavor.

Prof. WONDRICH: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

WERTHEIMER: This is a cloudy, mean-looking drink.

Prof. WONDRICH: It looks like soy sauce.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. WONDRICH: But let's make the Charles Dickens Punch and you'll see the range here.

WERTHEIMER: Now tell me where exactly did you get this one - this recipe?

Prof. WONDRICH: I got this from a recipe that Charles Dickens wrote to the sister of a friend, because Charles Dickens always made punch for friends whenever he entertained. It was part of his ritual. By his day, by the middle of 19th century, punch had gotten kind of old-fashioned.

But at the same time, thats what made it appeal to him - because, as we know, you read Charles Dickens' books and he was a great antiquarian. He liked to collect all the old customs and habits of old England.

When he entertained, he would put together a bowl of punch and talk about all the steps. Like right now, Im peeling lemons into the bowl.

WERTHEIMER: I admire the way you're peeling them because you're not getting very much of the white pith at all. It's a very nice job.

Prof. WONDRICH: I spend a considerable amount of my time peeling lemons...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. WONDRICH: ...it turns out. And this is one of the secrets of punch-making, especially the more delicate punches. You muddle the lemon peel, just the outer peel, with sugar and let it sit for an hour or two. And over time, the sugar will extract the lemon oil and that flavors the punch and kind of carries through your whole mixture, and gives it this bright lemony sort of deliciousness.

And if you would hand me those bottles, please, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Okay. Here we have...

Prof. WONDRICH: Cognac of the same brand that Dickens had in his cellar.

WERTHEIMER: And Plantation Rum.

Prof. WONDRICH: And Plantation Jamaican Rum, which is also quite fragrant and delicious. You pour these in here.

Does anybody have a match?

WERTHEIMER: There you go.

Prof. WONDRICH: There we go. There we go.

WERTHEIMER: So the blue flame sort of snaking over the surface of the punch, it's very pretty.

Prof. WONDRICH: And it dances a little. Now, he would have used a very strong rum but we used an nice, old one - quite tasty.

Punch should not be the strength of a cocktail. It's got to be something considerably less dangerous. Because again, the whole point is it's a social drink. You're supposed to drink it with your friends and not just have one or two quick snorts. You're supposed to keep going back to the bowl. And every time you go back to the bowl, somebody else is there and you'll talk to them. And it all ends up being very jolly and pleasant.

And one of the professional hazards of the drink historian is nostalgia, which I try to avoid. I know life was tough then and there were a lot of unpleasant things, but there were some compensations, and I think the whole punch ritual was one of them.

Now, Dickens says to let it sit for awhile to stream. But I think we could probably just drink it...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. WONDRICH: ...if you wish. Also important: The ritual tasting of the punch. Oh, I forgot the nutmeg. There are other spices, sometimes its cloves. Sometimes, its mace - you know, which is also part of the nutmeg tree.

Here you go.

WERTHEIMER: Oh, thats a delicious drink...

Prof. WONDRICH: I thank you.

WERTHEIMER: ...especially for a night thats as frozen as this one.

Prof. WONDRICH: I know. It kind of warms your cockles, doesnt it?

WERTHEIMER: I'd say - whatever they are.

Prof. WONDRICH: Well, Dickens - yeah, whatever they are.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. WONDRICH: Exactly.

WERTHEIMER: I think this is really delicious.

Prof. WONDRICH: Oh, good.

WERTHEIMER: The other one was mysterious.

Prof. WONDRICH: Yeah. No, this one is not mysterious at all. It's just good. This is classic punch. The other one is the little reptile brain of punch. You know, is its very beginnings. And then this is punch...

WERTHEIMER: Proto-punch.

Prof. WONDRICH: This is proto-punch. This is punch from its golden age. And it's a classic 18th-century brandy rum punch.

WERTHEIMER: If you were to be a punch drinker in 2011, what would you do? Would you have a big dinner and drink wine with your dinner? And then after dinner...

Prof. WONDRICH: You could bring out the punch.

WERTHEIMER: ...the punch.

Prof. WONDRICH: Or you could, in lieu of a cocktail party, have a punch party. You dont have to make individual drinks for everybody. Everybody gets to share something and it makes for a lovely party. And then you have a buffet and whatever and...

WERTHEIMER: And then more punch.

Prof. WONDRICH: Oh, more punch, of course.

WERTHEIMER: David Wondrich's book is called "Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl."

Thank you very much.

Prof. WONDRICH: Thank you, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: These two recipes are at NPR.org, plus a simple sort of introductory punch - highly recommended by Mr. Wondrich.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Linda Wertheimer.


And Im Renee Montagne.

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