Admiral Russell’s Punch

From Punch by David Wondrich

2.5 Cups Demerara Sugar
1 Cup Boiling Water
18 oz Strained Lemon Juice
4 oz Strained Lime Juice
2 Bottles Remy Martin Cognac
18 oz Sherry or Madeira (see below for specifics)
1.5 Quart Cold Water

To a punch bowl, add sugar and boiling water
Stir to dissolve
Add lemon and lime juices
Stir more, if needed, to dissolve all sugar
Add spirits, stir again
Add cold water
Grate nutmeg over the top

Garnish with a Playmobil rowboat helmed by a boy

Yield: 18 Cups.  Multiply by 700 for true authenticity

* * *

In the pantheon of drink making, how a drink is mixed can tell you a good deal about what’s to come:  if a drink is shaken, it probably contains fruit juice or some other opaque ingredient; if the drink is stirred, all the ingredients are most likely clear and potentially alcohol-based; a rolled drink will be less diluted than a shaken one and may imply that the drink is old very school or quite fancy; and, of course, should the drink be mixed by the oars of a small rowboat captained by a boy, well, you’re certainly in for one hell of a night.

For many reasons, there was simply no drink other than Admiral Russell’s Punch to cap our 12 Drinks of Christmas list.  The punch is tasty, sure.  But it’s the spectacle and the story of the drink that make it, without argument, the greatest drink ever assembled by man.  In his new book, Punch, David Wondrich details the events that led up to the party thrown by Admiral Russell on Christmas Day, 1694, but we’ve been fans of Admiral Russell’s herculean effort for some time now.  The first drink post on this site, The Cocktail and The Sling, from February of this year references this historic punch.  But sit tight – there’s no need to jump over to that other post – we’re going to tell you the whole story right here, for it is the closest thing the cocktail world has to a Christmas miracle.

Let us first meet the Admiral of the Fleet Edward Russell, 1st Earl of Oxford.  As his title suggests, he was a gentleman, one of the first of this “class” to devote his life to the seas.  More importantly, for our story, he was one of a group known as the Immortal Seven, those who officially sent William lll of Orange a request to depose the English King James ll.  Shortly after taking the throne, William rewarded Russell with the title First Lord of the Admiralty – which undoubtedly pleased the navy man – and then promptly told him that he would have to overwinter in Cadiz, Spain rather than coming home for Christmas – which decidedly did not.

To say that the English like Christmas would be a huge understatement. They have been under its spell ever since AD596 when St Augustine arrived, eager to convert the heathen Anglo-Saxons to Christianity.  Long before that, the Druids had considered mistletoe sacred (this has evolved into the “kiss beneath the mistletoe”), and the Saxons welcomed “King Frost” into their homes in wintertime.  The Normans brought St. Nicholas, whose mythology co-mingled with that of the Saxons and the Vikings.  In the 19th century, Christmas began to take on a more modern shape.  It was Prince Albert who first brought a Christmas tree to Windsor Palace in 1841, thus making it immediately fashionable amongst the masses.  In 1846, a London baker invented the Christmas cracker, which is pulled apart by two people who gather up the goodies inside.  In modern times, the Queen’s Christmas Message has become a tradition. And, of course, with Christmas, comes alcohol.  Indeed, the ubiquitous Christmas Pudding (which is made weeks before and often stirred by each family member) is usually so full of booze that it is ignited at the table.  No wonder Admiral Russell was, to put it lightly, annoyed at the thought of spending the holiday on foreign shores.

In Punch, Wondrich cites naval historian Michael Lewis, who details Russell’s immortal reaction: “I am at present under a doubt with myself whether it is better not to die.”  But rather than die that Christmas Day 1694, Russell did the next best thing – he threw a party that neither the guests nor the Admiralty would ever forget.  It wasn’t the prodigious food nor the hundreds of wait staff or even the exquisite garden surroundings belonging to the governor of Cadiz.  No, it was the Delft fountain holding 12 hogsheads (roughly 700 gallons) of punch that sent the (according to later reports) 6,000 guests a-titter.

There are numerous accounts of what is surely the most sprawling and absurd event in bibulous history.  “The Original Formula”, according to Wondrich, comes courtesy of Francis Moore in his “Vox Stellarum; Being an Almanack for the Year of Human Redemption” (1711).

“There was in the middle of a garden of lemons and oranges… a fountain which was set with Dutch tiles in the bottom and sides, and was made clean as a Japan punchbowl.  In this fountain, on Christmas-day was poured six butts of water, half a hogshead of strong mountain Malaga wine, two hundred gallons of brandy, six hundredweight of sugar, twelve thousand lemons, and nutmegs and sugar in proportion.”

Per Wondrich, the Edinburgh Advertiser of 1772 offered its own proportions, listing “four hogsheads of brandy, eight of water, 25,000 lemons, 20 gallons of lime juice, 1300 weight of fine white Lisbon sugar, 5 pound of grated nutmegs, 300 toasted biscuits, and last a pipe of dry Mountain Malaga.”

We found another reference, amusing because of the shift in facts.  In “An East Anglian Village: or, Epochs in the History of Chippenham (Cambs.)” by Robert William Barber, the author sources the magazine Household Words (1853), whose measurements agree with the Edinburgh Advertiser, but whose location has magically morphed into Russell’s Chippenham home:

“He was a hearty lover of punch and is said to have made the largest bowl of his favorite liquor that was ever made.   He constructed a bowl or cistern in his pleasure-ground at Chippenham and threw into it –4 hogsheads of brandy; 8 hogsheads of water; 25,000 lemons; 13 cwt. (sic) of sugar; 5 lbs. of grated nutmeg; 300 toasted biscuits; 1 pipe of dry mountain Malaga wine.  In this lake of liquor floated a small boat with a steady boat’s crew! These filled for all comers, and more than 6,000 persons partook of the admiral’s mixture.”

Regardless of location or measurements, one element remains delightfully the same – a young boy in a rowboat ferried about the surface of the punch, mixing it with his oars as he delivered it to the revelers.  Wondrich quotes partygoer Dr. William Oliver, who observed that after Russell toasted his guests in a civilized manner, he directed them to the punch fountain where the crowd dove in “with their shoes and stockings and all on, and like to have turned the boat, with the boy, over, and so he might have been drowned in punch; but to prevent further danger they sucked it up and left the punch-bowl behind.”

Despite being infinitely pleased with his party-hosting prowess, Admiral Russell was no hero to the Admiralty that Christmas Day in 1694 – one could say he threw a “one-two punch” with his frivolous fountain, and the fact that he stuck the Royal Navy with the bill.  Ironically, though, it was Russell’s winter in Cadiz that set the stage for England’s 1704 acquisition of nearby Gibraltar during the War of Spanish Succession.  (No more punch fountains have been thus recorded.)

In our opinion – Russell’s titular achievement aside – the real hero in all this is David Wondrich himself, who offers, in Punch, a scaled down version of Russell’s 6,000-plus serving bowl, complete with substitute boy and rowboat. In terms of ingredients, everything in the original recipe will seem familiar with the exception of the dry Malaga wine, which must be substituted.

Today, you’d be hard-pressed to even find an entry for Malaga or its province of Andalusia in a modern wine guide.  Once upon a time, both dry and sweet wines were produced in abundance, and Malaga’s sweet, fortified wines eclipsed the popularity of sherry from nearby Jerez.  When Russell was throwing his shindig, dry Malaga wine was easily acquired.  However, in 1870, phylloxera wiped out the region’s grapes, and today the area has less than one percent of the country’s vineyards.  As such, Wondrich suggests seeking out a nearby Montilla wine, which is available in varying levels of dryness and aging, much like sherry.  Look for an Amontillado (yes, of Poe fame) style.  In a pinch, you can also use either the Oloroso Sherry (Dry Sack, 15 y.o.) recommended by Wondrich or a Madeira  (choose a medium-dry Verdelho) which offer varying degrees of nutty, raisin-like flavors, despite their dry profile.  Sure, the sherry/madeira is just outside of the 12BB bounds, but come on, this drink demands to be made.

And so, we come to “the boy” of our story. We couldn’t get Playmobil Set 4295 in time for our fete, but the rowboat from the Ghost Pirates Blister Pack (Set 5900 – complete with octopus) stands in nicely.  As for the boy, we admit that we already had one from another Playmobil set (Set 3145 – we have a toddler, after all).   We hope these stand-ins will suffice, but mention a final warning from Wondrich, who cautions, “If you wish to add ice… you might want to omit the rowboat, to avoid any maudlin Titanic moments.”

And so, to Messrs. Russell and Wondrich, fellow lovers of drink, and all the ships at sea… we wish you a Merry Christmas indeed.

Esoterica: Last year, Courvoisier recreated Admiral Russell’s Punch on an even grander scale with its Courvoisier Architectural Punch Bowl.  See it in 360 here.  Video here.  Scaled recipe for “The Emperor’s Shrub” (the punch they made) here.  Rumors are it may be back in 2011.

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5 Responses to “Admiral Russell’s Punch”

  1. Carolyn
    December 23, 2010 at 2:33 pm #

    Did the boy say you could use his Playmobil? I have a Playmobile bum sitting on a bench with a bottle in his hand, wearing a hat with a flower. It was from their European collection, pulled from the US – not appropriate for American children!

    Great post!

  2. December 27, 2010 at 11:15 am #

    Now that’s what I call garnish!

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