Thursday, July 7, 2016

A Glass of Punch May Pack a Punch, But the Two Have Nothing in Common (Etymologically Speaking, Anyway)

Posted By on Thu, Jul 7, 2016 at 6:21 PM

I picked up Henry Fielding's novel, Tom Jones, once again after putting it down in the middle and moving on to other things. Back in April, I noted my surprise at finding that the phrases "ass kicking" and "ass kissing" were alive and well in the 18th century. In the part I'm reading now, our hero and others are on the move and stopping at inns along their way, and they frequently drink "punch" in the evenings. I wondered, is "punch" just a random alcoholic concoction in a punch bowl, or does it refer to something more specific? The answer is, it was a specific type of drink in the same way as, for example, a martini. It's of semi-exotic origins, as is its name.

Here are the basic ingredients, according to an online source, which are similar to ones described elsewhere.
In the beginning, punch was a simple mixture of five canonical ingredients: lemon or lime juice, sugar, water, "spice" (which could have been anything from nutmeg or tea to ambergris, a musky whale secretion now used only in perfume making), and, of course, liquor. Batavia arrack, a fiery but highly aromatic molasses-and-rice distillate imported from the Dutch East Indies, was the preferred spirit, but Caribbean rum and French brandy were right behind it. The earliest known reference to the drink dates from 1632, appearing in a letter to an India-bound merchant from an English colleague, who strongly warned against drinking it (if punch has a fault, it's the ease with which one can absorb too much of it).

Most likely, the name derived, not from the kick afforded by the drink, but from the Hindi word "panch," which means five, referring to the number of ingredients. If that's true, it most likely made its way to London courtesy of world-roaming sailors, but it bubbled up from its humble origins to the heights of British society.

By the 1690s, English poets were singing its praises, English lords were filling fountains with it, Dutchmen were drinking it, and Frenchmen were declaring it delicious. Yet, however wide its fame spread, it was still an English drink: as the French writer Alexandre Dumas later put it in his Le grand dictionnaire de cuisine (1873), "Our neighbors the English have a particular taste for punches."
Here is how Fielding describes its effects.
There are indeed certain liquors, which, being applied to our passions, or to fire, produce effects the very reverse of those produced by water, as they serve to kindle and inflame, rather than to extinguish. Among these, the generous liquor called punch is one. It was not, therefore, without reason, that the learned Dr. Cheney used to call drinking punch pouring liquid fire down your throat.
Thus endeth today's etymological, alcohol history lesson.

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