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Charles Dickens's Punch

From Punch by David Wondrich. By Lesley Jacobs Solmonson

Rind and Juice of 3 Lemons
6 oz by weight Demerara Sugar Cubes (see note below)
16 oz Pusser’s Rum
10 oz Remy Martin Cognac
40 oz Boiling Water

Yield: 8 Cups

Peel all three lemons with a swivel-head vegetable peeler, leaving behind as much of the white pith as possible
Add rinds, sugar, and spirits to a fire-proof bowl
Place a warm spoon of spirits over the bowl and light on fire
Slowly pour the flaming contents of the spoon into the bowl, igniting it
Let the contents of the bowl burn for 3 – 4 minutes, gently stirring occasionally (be careful not to put out the flame)
Cover the bowl with a lid or metal pan, extinguishing the flame
Add the juice of the lemons and the boiling water
Stir, cover for five minutes, and stir again
Place content of bowl into a loosely covered sauce pan and simmer on the stove for 15 minutes
Serve

Note: Dickens called for a “double-handfull” of lump sugar, which we’re assuming meant his sized hand.  Wondrich recommends 6 oz and rough cubes; however, he does not state whether those ounces are by weight or volume.  With sugar cubes, we always weigh, and indeed 6 oz by weight of La Perruche sugar cubes is two good handfuls for me.  It’s also about 10 oz by volume.  This produces a lovely, mellow, balanced punch.  At 6 oz sugar cubes by volume, we found the punch too tart.  Obviously, loose sugar measures differently by volume but should be roughly the same by weight.


* * *

“When Mr. Pickwick awoke next morning, there was not a symptom of rheumatism about him: which proves, as Mr. Bob Sawyer very justly observed, that there is nothing like hot punch in such cases: and that if ever hot punch did not fail to act as a preventative, it was merely because the patient fell into the vulgar error of not taking enough of it.”
– Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers (1836)

It is only fitting that we begin our 12 Drinks of Christmas with Charles Dickens, whose name not only calls up iconic images of this festive season but is also quite synonymous with drink.  Indeed, history informs us that Dickens was a great lover of punch, which weaves itself into many of his books. In “David Copperfield” (1850), the famously imbibing – and ever optimistic — Mr. Micawber drinks his “glass of punch with an air of great enjoyment.”  In “The Pickwick Papers”, punch is mentioned over 20 times. And in the classic “A Christmas Carol” (1843), the Cratchits enjoy Hot Gin Punch, while, in the end, Scrooge recommends that he and Bob Cratchit discuss the latter’s future over a bowl of Smoking Bishop.

Alcohol (punch or otherwise) is a recurring subject in both Dickens’ books and his own life, illuminating the era’s passion for spirits, both positive and negative.  While alcohol was regularly consumed with much vigor in Victorian society, it was also looked upon by many – including, ironically, Dickens’ illustrator George Cruikshank — as the great evil of the day.  During this era, the concept of teetotalism and the more extreme idea of “total abstinence” emerged; Cruikshank became a major crusader for the latter, spreading anti-drink propaganda with the famous “Gin Shop”, among other images.  Dickens, while noting the need for moderation, stalwartly defended the nation’s right to imbibe; unfortunately, it cost him his friendship with Cruikshank.

Luckily, Dickens could drown this loss of friendship with punch in its ever so many forms.  Punch, you may recall, was – and still is – a drink of both a festive nature and of situations that suggest leisure.  It can take a party – Christmas or otherwise — from beginning to end, contributing to the air of conviviality as the evening evolves. Served cold, it is refreshing; served hot, it is invigorating. The mere concept of the punch bowl suggests a gathering of like-minded souls with time to spare. There are Gin punches and milk-based punches, those that use Whiskey or Brandy or Rum, and others still that are particularly American. Dickens, ever the enthusiast, crafted his eponymous punch around a co-mingling of both Brandy and Rum, a popular marriage in the 18th Century.

Charles Dickens’s Punch, a recipe of the writer’s own devising, is an ideal drink to ring in the holiday season. It is difficult to imagine a better combination than the Brandy and Rum found here; as Wondrich explains, the Brandy mellows the Rum and the Rum adds complexity to the Brandy.  It’s also supremely “more-ish” – a colloquial English term meaning, well, you continually want more – which Wondrich tells us all good punch should be.  If you were ever on the fence about punch — perhaps you misguidedly thought it was for fraternities or knitting clubs or five-year-olds – this one will change your mind forever. It is perfection in a glass — quite like drinking a not-too-sweet sugar cookie with a touch of creamy lemon and the softest hints of alcohol. It’s a damned beautiful and balanced drink that shows both the delicacy and complexity of ingredients when they are combined just so. It also proves, beyond a doubt, that we should all drink punch and more of it.

To our great benefit, Dickens’ recipe, which comes from an 1847 letter to one “Mrs. F”, can be scaled up and down with ease, allowing for a party of five or fifty. Among his notes in the letter containing the recipe, Dickens cautions that you peel the lemons “with as little possible of the white coating between the peel and the fruit”.  He also notes that, if the punch is going to stand for more than three hours, you should remove half the lemon peel (which can add bitterness). Wondrich interjects that demerara sugar will do nicely for Dickens’ “lump sugar” and that a stainless steel spoon (“anything but pewter or, God forbid, wood or plastic”) should be used for the pyrotechnics.

As to those pyrotechnics. Please do not even think of skipping the step that involves lighting this punch on fire. It is not there to amaze your friends — although they will surely enjoy watching you do it — but rather it is an essential part of creating a punch both smooth and refined. Now, lighting any food or drink afire is a daunting act. Setting Dickens’s Punch ablaze is, simultaneously, less intimidating than it sounds and far more terrifying than you might expect.  Like a fine lady, treat fire with respect. Before you set your punch alight, clear the area of any superfluous alcohol and remove any of your own free-floating clothing (scarves, frilly collars, and other Victorian accoutrements) or jewelry. We cheated the fire-starter a bit by using high proof Wray and Nephew rum in a spoon, as its high alcohol content made for an efficient and prolonged flame – you’ll need spirits of 80 proof or higher to set them ablaze, with higher proof equaling easier lighting.  Once the flaming spoon of spirit is poured into the punch mixture, stir the mixture gently and not too frequently or you will extinguish the flame.

And so, we’ll leave you with a little 18th Century ditty, quoted courtesy of Wondrich’s “Punch”:

“You may talk of brisk Claret, sing Praises of Sherry,
Speak well of old Hock, Mum, Cider, and Perry;
But you must drink Punch if you mean to be Merry.”

In this, the merriest of seasons, we at 12 Bottle Bar raise our proverbial punch glasses to our readers and to Mr. Dickens, who has, for nearly two centuries, embodied both the spirit and “spirits” of Christmas.

Esoterica: If one has any doubt of how much the Victorians loved their punch, look no further than Punch magazine (pub. 1841-1991, 1992-2002).  The magazine’s name was inspired mainly by the puppet “Mr. Punch” of Punch and Judy fame.  However, it also refers to a double-entendre joke about one of the magazine’s original – and emblematic — editors Mark Lemon. As the staff extolled, “punch is nothing without lemon.”  We can’t comment on Lemon’s necessity to Punch magazine, but surely we can agree on the essential nature of the ingredient in punch whether it is Charles Dickens’ or otherwise.

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