The story of punch: Invented in Asia as beer substitute for British colonial sailors, loved by Charles Dickens, and back in style

Punch is one of the oldest cocktails, dating back to the 17th century. A waitress serves punch at the Republic bar in the Ritz-Carlton Millenia Singapore.
PHOTO: Ritz-Carlton Millenia Singapore

In the private room of The Diplomat, a bar in Hong Kong’s Central district, co-owner John Nugent deftly carves the rinds off three lemons and an orange and puts them in a container filled with about 200 grams of sugar.

Then he takes his long spoon and starts mixing it all together.

“You can kind of see it’s already starting to stick; what you want to see is the sugar clumping up. That means it’s already starting to extract from the peel.”

He’s making oleo saccharum, or sugar-citrus oil, that combined with various spirits, water and spices produces punch, an alcoholic drink that was invented in the 1600s and has made a comeback in recent years.

Head mixologist John Nugent makes punch at The Diplomat in Central, Hong Kong.
Photo: South China Morning Post

“There’s many different ways to make oleo [saccharum], maybe the most traditional is doing it in a punch bowl and then letting it sit for 15, 20 minutes, up to an hour,” explains Nugent. “I think the adage is the more you let it sit, the better it will be. It will draw out more of the oil.”

The Diplomat’s fish house punch uses oleo saccharum, cachaca – a Brazilian spirit made from distilled fermented sugar cane juice – cognac, black tea, kaffir and peach.

Punch has been popular for centuries, but few people know that the drink has its origins in South Asia.

According to David Wondrich, an authority on punches and cocktails, there is no definitive person known to have created the concoction that featured a spirit, sugar, water and spices, but he believes it came from Southeast Asia.

The British East India Company started sailing to India in the 1600s to trade in tea, spices, cotton, silk, sugar, salt, and later opium, he says over Zoom from his home in Brooklyn, New York.

David Wondrich is an authority on punches and cocktails, and has written several books on drinks.
Photo: South China Morning Post

The six-month voyages for British sailors were difficult due to the harsh conditions, although as part of their contract, they were given almost a gallon of beer a day.

“This was fine for trips between London and Hamburg, or to Bordeaux, but once they’re sailing around Africa and into the Indian Ocean, all that beer went off immediately because it was stored in barrels and was not pasteurised or refrigerated,” explains Wondrich, who has written several books, including Imbibe! for which he received a James Beard award.

The seamen had to find an alternative way to get their alcoholic buzz – by using local ingredients they found in Southeast Asia.

They used spirits in the form of distilled palm sap or rice – which were sterile and wouldn’t go off – and then to make it more palatable, they mixed it with citrus juice that was readily available, along with sugar and water.

“The drink would keep indefinitely, and they basically turned it into originally what was a sort of an artificial wine that worked pretty well and everybody liked it,” says Wondrich.

“It tamed the flavour of the spirits and yet was powerful enough that everybody got a little buzz off it. It wasn’t as powerful as drinking straight spirits.”

As a result the drink became known as “the sailor’s punch”. While it could possibly have been an Indian recipe, Wondrich says there isn’t any Indian documentation of it, and so it was the British who made the drink their own and spread it around the world.

He says they began talking about a “marvellous drink” that they invented in 1610; about 10 years later its name was punch, and by 1630 recipes were documented.

The origins of the name punch are murky, and Wondrich doesn’t believe the theory that punch comes from the Hindi word for five – paanch, as in using five ingredients to make punch, but rather the name was conjured to give the beverage an exotic appeal.

‘Famille rose’ antique punchbowl, showing the Western trading stations along the Canton waterfront.
PHOTO: The British Museum

When the sailors brought the drink back to Britain, Wondrich says it took a while for it to catch on, whereas in colonies like the Caribbean it spread like wildfire.

“Punch was a great way to drink rum, as citrus grows in the Caribbean very easily. They have nothing but sugar because they were making rum from sugar by-products. So it was all very, very economic,” he says.

Punch only became popular in England in the 1700s, with a ritual and etiquette around it. Wondrich equates it to men and barbecues.

Nugent makes punch using Brazilian spirit cachaca at The Diplomat in Central.
Photo: South China Morning Post

“Gentlemen liked to make their own punch because everybody had their own way of doing it,” he says.

“In a tavern, they would often just call for the ingredients and they would assemble it and then drink it. Obviously, there was always wine on the table as well. The punch was generally the strength of strong wine, not cocktail strength. It was a little weaker, so you could drink more of it.

“And they used to drink toasts with little tiny glasses that held maybe 60ml at most,” continues Wondrich. “Every time you drank a toast, you’d have to drain a glass and oh, that mounts up. Even with a punch being a little bit weak and the glasses small, they drank a lot of toasts.”

He says highly-prized punch bowls were porcelain ones from China that were probably originally soup tureens.

“The Chinese painted the punch bowl and it was standard and highly prized,” Wondrich says, adding some can be seen in the British Museum.

Writer Charles Dickens liked to show off his skill at making punches.

“He had a whole ritual where he put the ingredients in the bowl while describing each one,” says Wondrich. “He kept a very well-stocked cellar. And so he put everything in the bowl and then took a spoonful of spirits and lit it on fire, and set the bowl on fire.”

The popularity of punch began petering out in the mid-1800s, when Queen Victoria, who was vehemently opposed to hard drinking, wanted her subjects to cut back on their alcohol consumption.

“Eventually punch became something for special occasions. But at the same time, it also got shrunk down into drinks, like the whiskey sour, and the daiquiri, the margarita, those were all punches by the technical definition, they all have the same combination of ingredients. And any cocktail with citrus pretty much can be considered a child of punch.”

Beverage manager Konstantin Nemolochny at Republic in the Ritz-Carlton Millenia Singapore.
PHOTO: Ritz-Carlton Millenia Singapore

Wondrich says these “miniaturised” drinks led to the evolution of cocktails that lost punch’s communal aspect. Nevertheless, in the past few years, cocktails have returned to their roots, and bars like Diplomat, Argo and The St Regis Bar in Hong Kong, and Republic in the Ritz-Carlton Millenia Singapore have brought back punch with sophistication.

Republic offers three different punches: a base of American rye whiskey, one with gin, and another with Sri Lankan arrack. Drinks manager Konstantin Nemolochnyi says it is ideal to have four or five people drink the punch, though there have been parties of two who manage to drain the entire punch bowl. On Sundays the bar also offers punch brunch, a three-course meal with punch.

Meanwhile in Hong Kong, Nugent’s bar serves punch in single servings, and for parties in the private room he serves punch in a vessel shaped like a flamingo.

His punches can be very technical, and one is called English punch, where milk is added to the drink and then strained through a cheesecloth, leaving a clear drink that’s smooth and rounded.

“The milk punch is definitely really big right now in Hong Kong. I think milk punch is very forgiving because once you fat wash it, it really takes away a lot of bitter notes. It’s really soft on the palate and easy to drink.”

Nugent says the trend of using hi-tech gadgets to make cocktails has given way to more classic methods, and the genesis is punch.

“The more you investigate classic cocktails, the more you investigate classic drinking, punches have to come up. And so you realise, in a place, especially like Hong Kong, where people love to have shareable dishes … that’s essentially what a punchbowl is. Why do people like big bottles? It’s to have fun, but also to share with their friends. And I think that’s what the punchbowl can kind of signify. It’s all about bringing people together.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.