Despite what juice box connoisseurs may think, a punch drink was originally a mixture of water, fruit juices, spirits (as in liquor), spices, and sugar. You know, like the punch some people serve at parties in huge bowls? The fruity alcoholic drinks that taste like rubbing alcohol mixed with Kool-Aid because someone thought it would be cool to pour a couple of bottles of grain alcohol in the mix? That punch. I suppose many people would assume, for good reason, that it came to be called punch because it packs one.
Punch was also a specific category of drinks in old-time bars, but the drink we know as punch seems to have originated in India. English explorers discovered this drink when they first went to India in the 1600’s. It had five ingredients in it and was called pañc, which is pronounced more like punch, and is the source of our word. This word punch first appears in English printed works which reference India.
The word pañc meant “five.” The Indian and Persian words for five originated from the Proto-Indo-European word penk-e, which is also the source of the Greek word pente, the root of pentagon. The Persian word was panj, which you might also encounter spelled as punj. We see these words also in Punjab or Panjab, which is a region of Northwest India which is bordered by the Indus River in the West and the Yamuna in the East. Panjab translates to “five rivers.”
There is another version of the origin of the word punch, that claims that the it was not Indian, but came from sailor’s slang for puncheon. A puncheon was a large wooden cask that was used to transport rum. There seems to be more written reference to the Indian origin.
Some historical sources assert that it was the English themselves that first made the drink, which came to be called punch for it’s five ingredients, as a way of making strong, an unpalatable spirits more agreeable. Others, however, steadfastly maintain that the drink is “Oriental” in origin (meaning India or thereabouts). Mixing spirits with spices and fruits was certainly done in that part of the world. The typical ingredients of an old-time punch were rum, water, lemons, sugar, and spice. Keep in mind that rum was often a generic term for liquor, in those days. From punch came the so-called “Rule of Five” which states that a punch must have five ingredients: a sour one, a sweet one, a strong one, a weak one, and some spices. This is often given the more specific form, “One sour, two sweet, three Strong, tour weak, and spices make five.”
The original punch, which started with five ingredients but eventually expanded to include any number, even 12 or 15, made its way to colonial America, and was even mentioned by Benjamin Franklin. The drink was scaled down to single servings, although the drink was often shared.
Punch as One of Several Categories of Mixed Drinks
Jerry Thomas’s first big bartending book from 1862, How to Mix Drinks, had recipes for seven times as many punches as cocktails, which clearly signifies the importance of punch in those days. Today, the reverse is true, with recipe books having hardly any punches but hundreds of cocktails. However, this is partly because the word “cocktail” has come to be a generic term for a mixed drink, whereas it originally was a specific category of drinks. Many of the drink recipes we know today descend from punches. If you drank too much punch, you got punch-drunk or punchy.
Punches served in taverns could have any number of different ingredients and were made with rum, gin, whiskey, brandy, sherry, wine, or any other types of spirits. Some punches even used milk (Brandy Milk Punch is still a Christmas favorite). Fruits included lemons, limes, pineapples, oranges, or guava jelly. Nutmeg, most often, was the spice used. Sometimes, liqueurs were added, which might serve to take the place of a spice.
How most school-children know punch, of course, has nothing to do with alcoholic drinks. They know it, instead, as a very sweet mixture of fruit juices or flavors, especially tropical. This idea of punch started with Hawaiian Punch, which was developed in 1929. Hawaiian Punch was a blend of seven concentrated fruit juices, pineapple, orange, passion fruit, apple, apricot, papaya, and guava; and was meant to be used as a fruit topping. However, people found that it made a great drink when mixed with water, and by 1950 it was put into large 460z cans to be served as a drink. This is how I remember it.