September 20th, 2012
09:00 AM ET
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While you're frying up some eggs and bacon, we're cooking up something else: a way to celebrate today's food holiday.

Avast, mateys! What, you say Talk Like A Pirate Day was yesterday? Well, you can still enjoy rum drinks, as today is National Rum Punch Day.

Continue drinking like a pirate, as notorious brigands such as Captain Avery and John Rackham have been depicted as fond of punch, Welsh pirate William Davis sold his wife for some punch, and Edward Low once forced a captive at gunpoint to share a bowl of punch.

Rum punch is an ancient libation. As drinks historian David Wondrich notes in his book "Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl", excavations in what is now Pakistan uncovered “remains of what were unmistakably distillery-grogshop complexes...These have been dated to the time of Christ, give or take a century or two. Combine them with the sugarcane that Alexander the Great found growing in the same region, and the long-standing domestication of the lime in India, and it’s not impossible that Rum Punch could be two thousand years old.”

Fast forward several hundred years to eighteenth-century America, and rum punch predominated. In "Straight Up or On the Rocks: The Story of the American Cocktail", William Grimes says that “the pride of most taverns, and a centerpiece of festive occasions, was rum punch, flavored with shrub, lemon, or orange juice.” (Shrub is an old term for a homemade liqueur, often fruit-flavored. Many punch recipes use various sorts of shrubs.)

Wayne Curtis, author of "And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails", concurs. “The most popular and most democratic beverage in colonial America was rum punch...Punch could be found wherever rum was found – which is to say, everywhere in America within horse cart distance of the West Indian trade.”

Even Benjamin Franklin got into the act, offering a recipe for Jamaica rum punch in the 1737 edition of "Poor Richard’s Almanack":

Boy, bring a bowl of China here,
Fill it with water cool and clear;
Decanter with Jamaica ripe,
And spoon of silver, clean and bright,
Sugar twice-fin’d in pieces cut,
Knife, sieve, and glass in order put,
Bring forth the fragrant fruit, and then
We’re happy till the clock strikes ten.

Another versified formula for punch pops up everywhere: “One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, and four of weak.” This works just fine today, and forms the basis of most rum punches you’ll find across the Caribbean, as Curtis points out. And adding a bit of spice – most usually fresh-grated nutmeg – can really elevate a punch.

Rum punches can be wonderfully simple, such as the Ti’ Punch served all over the French-speaking Caribbean, in which rhum agricole is mixed with lime juice and a little cane-sugar syrup. Ice is optional. Or they can be as complex as this milk punch from Brad Farran of Brooklyn’s Clover Club, wherein aged Guatemalan rum and tea-infused Navy rum cavort with Benedictine and milk.

Most punches you’ll find are simpler, such as this formula from Wondrich for “pirate-style rum punch.” Make a simple syrup with raw sugar, add lime juice, a bottle of “the funkiest rum you can get”, some water, a bunch of ice, and some fresh nutmeg, and aim toward the Spanish Main.

This 1949 recipe for a “Christmas Rum Punch” sounds appropriately festive, and you get to light things on fire:

6 oranges
1/2 gallon sweet apple cider
1 bottle Jamaica rum (such as Myers’ Dark or Appleton V/X)
Whole cloves
Ground cinnamon and nutmeg

Stick the oranges full of cloves and bake them in the oven until they soften (approx.. 20-30 minutes at 350℉) Place oranges in the punch bowl, pour the rum over, and add granulated sugar to taste. Set fire to rum, and in a few seconds add the cider slowly to extinguish the fire. Stir in cinnamon and nutmeg and serve hot.

Still, the best rum punch is the one that’s in front of you at the moment. As Jane Cobb wrote in the New York Times in 1936, quoted in "And A Bottle of Rum", “Many people seem to feel that there are only two recipes [for Planter’s Punch] – the right one and the wrong...The chances are ten to one that most people who drink the punches like them very much, no matter which version is served. Anyway the sensible thing to do is drink slowly and stop fussing.” Well said.

Incidentally, today is also National Punch Day, not just National Rum Punch Day. Try the vintage recipes above, or try this real crowd-pleaser that’s been a hit at the last few parties I’ve thrown:

Royal Hibernian Punch

Peel 3 lemons, trying not to get any of the white pith, and muddle the peels with ¾ cup demerara or other raw sugar.

Let sit for an hour or two, then add 3/4 cup strained lemon juice and stir till the sugar has dissolved. Add 1 1/2 cups Sandeman Rainwater Madeira and stir. This is your “shrub.”

Pour the shrub into a clean 750 mL bottle. Fill the rest of the bottle with water, seal, and refrigerate.

To serve, pour the shrub into a punch bowl, add another 750 ml bottle of cold water and a bottle of Redbreast or Jameson 12 Irish whiskey, add a 1 1/2 quart block of ice, and grate nutmeg over the top. Serves 20.

The Vintage Cookbook Vault highlights recipes from our managing editor's insane stash of books and pamphlets from the early 20th century onward. It's a semi-regular thing. Recipes in the gallery above are from 'Here's How: Mixed Drinks' circa 1941. Many thanks to Heather O'Donnell of Honey and Wax for bringing this magical volume into our lives.

This was originally published in 2012, but we got thirsty.

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Filed under: Books • Breakfast Buffet • Cocktail Recipes • Food Holidays • News • Sip • Spirits • Vintage Cookbook Vault • Vintage Cookbooks

soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. palintwit

    Remember those five seconds back in August of 2008, when fresh new face Sarah Palin was going to save John McCain’s flailing presidential run and revive the Republican Party with her legs and her winking and her lipstick? But then a funny thing happened on the way to the White House — she opened her mouth !!

    September 21, 2013 at 10:26 am |
    • Stane D. Ress

      Same could be said of Monica Lewinsky.

      September 21, 2013 at 10:33 am |
  2. Shirley U Jest

    Day late. Dollar short.
    And not a GD thing about what to cook on Talk Like a Pirate Day.
    very very very lame.
    Isn't this supposed to be a food blog?
    Where's the blog?

    September 20, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
  3. lunchbreaker

    Clemson celebrated the occasion early last night.

    September 20, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
  4. RichardHead

    Guess I'll need to wear my glasses ALL day today,being National Punch Day.

    September 20, 2013 at 8:24 am |
  5. Walter

    Arrrrrrrrrrrgh, I know me late, but a rum punch sounds good rrrrrrrrright about now! Arrrrrrgh....

    September 21, 2012 at 10:29 am |
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