The Story of Punch
Many believe that “Punch” is a loanword from the Sanskrit pañc, meaning “Five,” which indicates the number of ingredients in the drink: Spirits, sugar, citrus, water, and spice (or tea).
It’s a flexible beverage, in that it can be served hot or cold, made with various spirits, sugars, citrus, and spices, and adapted to the cultural palate of wherever it’s being served. But the cultural and logistical realities that allowed for the discovery and adoption of punch by the British and then made it possible for this beverage to spread across the globe are fascinating in and of themselves.
Down through the ages, the Indian people – by and large – are a peace-loving bunch, and their popular religions either discourage alcohol (in the case of Hinduism and Buddhism) or outright ban its consumption (in the case of Islam). But, if you remember those warlike military ruling classes from out of town I mentioned a minute ago, they either tended not to share the popular religious discouragement of alcohol, or they simply felt they were above the rules. Because that’s just how sovereign rulers tend to operate.
In the case of the Christian British colonial powers who arrived in India in the early seventeenth century, alcohol really wasn’t an issue. It played (and continues to play) a large role in British culture. Add to this the fact that, in the early 1600s when the British East India Company started sending a ton of people to colonize India, English ships started carrying a large quantities of spirits (rather than beer and wine) to avoid spoilage during the long, hot voyage.
This is not to say that India didn’t already have spirits. The typical variety is called “Arrack,” which is a generic term for most spirits made in Asia, and the important thing to remember about this term is that it’s generic. When you say “Arrack,” you’re saying something closer to “liquor” or “spirits,” not something more specific like “gin” or “whiskey.” And this undoubtedly played into the flexibility and adaptability of punch as a discipline (if it can be called that).
What other factors led to the rise of punch? Well, it helps that Indians had been cultivating various citrus fruits for a long time, and many of the southern provinces of the subcontinent prolific growers of tea.
So we’ve got our booze (foreign and domestic), we’ve got our citrus, spice, and tea, and we also have a lot more sugar being produced and shipped across the world due to the advent of the sugar industry in the west indies and elsewhere.
Ever since it was discovered that the consumption of citrus was helpful in warding off various illnesses that sailors were prone to (such as scurvy), people had been tinkering with the best way to take their vitamins. So, as these British East India ships traveled up and down the coast of India, you can imagine that punch became a popular way to make taking said vitamins a bit more enjoyable.