Deeper than the Punch Bowl: A Brief History of Rum Punch

by Zachary Stine

Too often, the word punch brings to mind images of cellophane wrapped straws adhered to the back of juice pouches, of large bowls on refreshment tables at high school dances, and of vats of grain alcohol and Kool-Aid served zealously at college parties.  This is the punch we all know, but what if I told you that the real history of punch stretches back over four centuries?  What if I told you that the history of punch is intertwined with the ancient civilizations of the East Indies, the vast fortunes of kings and merchants, and the expanding empires of Europe?  The history of this drink is far deeper than your grandmothers punch bowl.

To find the first mention of punch in the Western cannon you must travel back to 1632, before Peter the Great became Czar of Russia, before William Penn founded the Pennsylvania colony, and before the birth of Sir Issac Newton.  But, even this early date is not the beginning.  No one knows for sure the root of the word punch. Some say it comes from old Sanskrit; some, from the Indian dialect of Hindustani; still others argue its root lies in ancient Persia.  Whatever the true origin of the word punch, every language’s term for it translates to five.  This translation refers the five elements that define a true punch – sweet, sour, alcohol, water, and spice.

The spice most common to these historic punches was nutmeg, and it was the great desire that European aristocrats and elites held for this spice that eventually led to punch traveling from the banks of the Indian ocean to the parlors of London and Paris.  Nutmeg was one of the most valuable substance in all of the 17th century.  Those traders who were able to successfully ferry the spice back around the Horn of Africa to the ports of Europe could sell their cargo at 60,000 times the purchase price.  The business was so lucrative, that a group of merchants banded together and revolutionized the world of business by founding the first ever publicly traded corporation, the Dutch East India Company.   It was sailors upon these trading ships that first discovered the wonder of punch.

The discovery of this libation by Western sailors was not because of an eagerness to expand their palates; rather, it was a product of necessity.   These sailors were lovers of fortune, adventure, and, most importantly, drink.  Their daily ration of ale was prized.  The belly of every ship held a hefty number of ale barrels to ensure the men were able to partake in their favorite pastime.  But, as their ships entered the warmer waters of the Indian Ocean, their caches of beer began to spoil and go flat.  Facing the terror of a day void of inebriation, these sailors turned to the shores of the East Indies in search of a replacement for their beloved Western ale.  What they found was punch.

With its discovery by British sailors, the wonders of punch quickly conquered the world.  The drink became the fashionable refreshment for artist, aristocrats, and intellectuals across Europe.  By, 1655 the “modern” rum punch was born when Jamaican rum from the West Indies became the alcohol of choice for much of the Western world.  As, the hand of British Imperialism reached across the Atlantic to the American territories, the taste for this popular drink became a prevalent staple in the cities of the future United States.  Over the next three centuries the popularity of punch and its many variations continued to grow and enrich the lives and alter the perceptions of its many admirers.

It is with this 400 years of history in mind, that we developed our rum punch, the Bayou Rise.  Made with Old New Orleans amber rum, sweet vermouth, Szechuan syrup fresh fruit, and bitters, this mixture makes the five classic elements of punch sing.  With one sip of this fantastic drink, the images of punch as juice boxes and Kool-Aid concoctions will be banished from your mind.  Instead, this ancient word will evoke a centuries old tale of exploration, riches, and proper inebriation.  So, come on by Palmettos on the Bayou and toast the world of old as you sip on your new favorite drink, the Bayou Rise.