January is a time for conviviality, for turning inwards with congenial company and shouldering out the cold. Some will tell you it is the time to detox, but it is always the time to detox, and your liver and kidneys are busily obliging as you read. No: January is the moment to remind ourselves, after the forced closeness of Christmas, what we like about other people, particularly those to whom we are not related.
You have just lived through a season of insanity, where even anti-capitalist atheists find themselves celebrating the birth of a human deity via a Sinai-size stack of presents; it is time to break out the punchbowl and knock yourself up a potent toast to your survival.
Punch is a survivor’s drink. It is older than the cocktail by at least 200 years – a gift from India (the name comes from panch, Sanskrit for five) that became the tipple of imperial merchants, Regency maidens, Tory toffs and press-ganged sailors. It is also the most convivial of potions: even the five ingredients party together in that shining bowl, with no harsh shakings or mischievous stirrings to interrupt the intercourse. Around a large ice cube, sweet and sour come together for mutual benefit, while power consorts with nature and the past finds accommodation with the present.
The peels of four lemons are left in sugar for a week, then made sherbet by the addition of the lemons’ juice; to this is added water, without which we cannot live, and strong alcohol, without which some of us wouldn’t want to. Grate a quarter of nutmeg on top and you have a blend of sweetness, spiciness, simplicity and strength, along with a strong dose of civilisation, for in the ancient world no civilised man would have dreamed of drinking alcohol without cutting it with water.
There is healthfulness, too: in the 17th century, when this exotic drink washed across the Western consciousness, nutmeg, a luxury foodstuff worth 300 times the price of gold, was also thought to ward off plague; citrus was, all unknown, preventing scurvy; and rum was proven to be the cure for all evils – at least if you were a sailor, vulnerable to exploitation and homesickness.
Punch is a drink that cannot be drunk alone, or even à deux unless, like Romeo, you are planning never to get up again. As my punch guru, Aaron Jones of Banks rums, upended an entire bottle of his company’s product into the bowl, before adding a litre of water and that tangy, oily, sugar-lemon sherbet mix, it became apparent that this was the ideal way to soak dry January to the eyeballs. Banks is named after Sir Joseph, an eminent 18th-century botanist who surely appreciated the luxurious flavour of nutmeg; he was also a member of the Society of Dilettanti, a group of art lovers better known for loving drunkenness. I bet they drank punch.
Jones kept reminding me of punch’s chronological superiority to the cocktail, but it has other advantages. The cocktail is the tipple of individualists, as befits a drink (or several) designed to combat Prohibition; punch requires a like-minded society, prepared to blend its differences, at least enough to drink the same thing. Mellow conversation over a fine common beverage is precisely what I’m after in these dark and chilly days. And so my friends and I raise our punch cups to you, and wish you an agreeable 2018, with plenty of insobriety, and just enough spice.
This article appears in the 10 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief