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The origin of the cocktail. Part 7: “Ye Olde English Cocktail” and the Punch

The origin of the cocktail.

We end our reconstruction of an English cocktail with this suggestion. As we have deduced, the original cocktail must be thought of as a punch.

Sixth intermediate review

Based on our investigation, we have reconstructed the “English Cocktail”. It shows that it is very likely that a lot of bitters and ginger were used in the original English cocktail. But we have to think further into the cocktail, because we have not yet reached the end. So let’s explore the subject further in the next chapter.

„Ye Olde English Cocktail“ and the Punsh

We had reconstructed the “English Cocktail” in the last chapter. Our recipe was as follows:

English Cocktail

55 ml Pierre Ferrand 1840 cognac
5 ml ginger brandy
5 ml Stoughton’s Bitters
5 ml sugar syrup (2:1)

But is this already a cocktail as one might have drunk it in 18th century England? No. It is still far too close to an old-fashioned cocktail. Important things we have deduced before have not yet been taken into account. So we have to think even further back in time and put ourselves in the same place.

First of all, we had found the hint that one should add two parts of water to one part of spirit. In addition, one should take into account that initially ice was certainly not used for cooling, at least not as a rule. Ice only became generally available from 1830 and found its way into the cocktail. If we modify the recipe taking these things into account, we get a cocktail that goes back even further in time and has even less to do with what we understand by a cocktail today. Let’s just call it “Ye Olde English Cocktail” to distinguish it from the “English Cocktail”. This designation refers to an English expression that goes back at least to the late 18th century, [1] to a time in which we are at least with this reconstructed recipe, and which was used to designate something very old. [4]

Ye Olde English Cocktail

50 ml cool water
20 ml Pierre Ferrand 1840 cognac
5 ml ginger brandy

5 ml Stoughton Bitters
5 ml sugar syrup (2:1)

Alternatively and currently preferred by us:

50 ml cool water
20 ml Park XO cognac
5 ml ginger brandy

5 ml Stoughton Bitters
5 ml sugar syrup (2:1)

The alcohol content of this mixture is comparable to that of a Royal Purl, and one can thus imagine that this drink, through the use of ingredients which – as we have already discussed – were said to have a healing effect at the time, is definitely something that people took in the morning and afternoon to maintain their health in 1780, for example.

Our attempt to prepare this mixture with less water and to add the missing water by ice cooling (stirring the cocktail) has been revealing. The result is disappointing when compared to the version made with just cool water. There are worlds apart. In the version made without ice, the flavours are much more beautifully developed, much more aromatic. This experience is lost through too much cooling.

This has been a key experience for us. This experiment shows that you have to think of the original cocktail as a punch! It probably even evolved from punch by replacing citrus juice and spices with ginger and bitters.

David Wondrich describes a similar behaviour of punch in his punch book. He quotes Jerry Thomas, according to whom the great secret of preparing punch is to make it “sweet and strong”, “while “thoroughly amalgamating all the compounds, so that the taste of neither the bitter, the sweet, the spirit, nor the element [i.e., H2O], shall be perceptible one over the other.””. [2-62]

David Wondrich also writes: „you’ll also have to learn to balance the spirituousand aqueous elements, so that the drink is soft and pleasant but not insipid; so that the taste and aroma of the base liquor are present enough to remind you that you’re drinking spirits, but with none of its heat or bite. James Ashley, Londons leading purveyor of Punch in the eighteenth century … , found that balance point at one part spirits to two parts water, citrus and sugar. Assuming that’s about 16 percent alcohol (by volume) – the strength of a (very) strong California Cab or a light sherry.“ [2-65]

David Wondrich continues: „Above all things, Punch must be moreish. (Drinks writing has few terms of art entirely its own; this is one of them, and it is indispensable. It simply means “it makes you want to drink more of it.”) It’s a long-distance drink, not a sprinter like the Cocktail.“ [2-66]

He also states: „Punch, lacking the alcoholic concentration of the Cocktail, does not need to be as numbingly cold – indeed, it is best if it isn’t: if it’s chilled to Cocktail temperatures (i. e., below 32 degrees Fahrenheit), its fragance is muted and its delicate harmony lost. It does, nonetheless, like to be cool, and in the summer, very cool. Ever since the end of the eighteenth century, iced Punch was considered a luxury indeed.“ [2-82]

John Ashton: Social life in the reign of Queen Anne, 1882, page 202 - Major Bird's Punch.
John Ashton: Social life in the reign of Queen Anne, 1882, page 202 – Major Bird’s Punch. [3-202]

So we see the similarities with a punch, not only in terms of the use of water. “Major Bird’s Brandy Punch” can be cited as an example. David Wondrich describes it in his punch book. The eponymous Major Bird had been in the liquor business since 1689, and his Brandy Punch was published in 1882 in John Ashton’s book “Social Life in the Reign of Queen Anne, Taken from Original Sources”. [2-132] [3-202] So it’s a very old recipe, well over 300 years old.

Major Bird’s Brandy Punch

Take one Quart of Brandy, and it will bear 2 Quarts and a Pint of Spring Water; if you drink it very strong, then 2 Quarts of Water to a Quart of the Brandy, with 6 or 8 Lisbon Lemmons, and half a Pound of fine Loaf Sugar: Then you will find it to have a curious fine scent and flavour, and Drink and Taste as clean as Burgundy Wine.

These are, of course, quantities that we don’t usually mix with these days. It gets interesting when you break down the punch recipe to a cocktail glass. You then get a recipe of about 20 ml brandy, 40 ml water, 7.75 ml lemon juice and 4 grams sugar. So we can see that the drink was not too sweet overall, and the sugar only serves to balance the acidity. The punch was also not a sour, because then – based on modern recipes – one would certainly use around 30 ml of lemon juice per glass. So the lemon juice only serves to add a certain shine and slight freshness to the punch, just as is done with the Brandy Crusta.

So let’s take a look back at our statement that you have to think of the cocktail as a variation of the punch. We too used 20 ml brandy and 40 ml water. In the cocktail, however, lemon juice, sugar and spices such as grated nutmeg (which is missing in Major Bird’s Punch) were replaced by ginger and bitters (such as Stoughton’s Elixir) compared to a classic punch, because they probably wanted to give the punch a more medicinal, health-promoting orientation.

In America

By the time it arrived in America, at the latest, the cocktail had been transformed. The amount of water was reduced, less bitter was used and the ginger disappeared. The cocktail then took other paths of development, but we do not want to go into that here, that is reserved for a separate post. It developed from the “plain cocktail” via the “fancy cocktail” to the “improved cocktail” and then branched out further and further, with vermouth, liqueurs and also citrus juices coming into play again.

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ye_olde: Ye olde.
  2. David Wondrich: Punch. The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flwing Bowl. An Anecdotal History of the Original Monarch of Mixed Drinks, with More Than Forty Historic Recipes, Fully Annotated, and a Complete Course in the Lost Art of Compounding Punch. ISBN 978-0-399-53616-8. New York, Pedigree Book, 2010.
  3. John Ashton: Social Life in the Reign of Queen Anne: Taken from Original Sources. Band 1. London, Chatto & Windus, 1882. Page 224. https://archive.org/stream/sociallifeinrei00ashtgoog#page/n224/mode/2up/search/punch
  4. https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/ye-olde: Ye olde.

explicit capitulum


Hi, I'm Armin and in my spare time I want to promote bar culture as a blogger, freelance journalist and Bildungstrinker (you want to know what the latter is? Then check out "About us"). My focus is on researching the history of mixed drinks. If I have ever left out a source you know of, and you think it should be considered, I look forward to hearing about it from you to learn something new. English is not my first language, but I hope that the translated texts are easy to understand. If there is any incomprehensibility, please let me know so that I can improve it.

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