Since nothing is more important to my enjoyment of classic literature than alcoholic accuracy, I decided to pursue the question of what might have been in that bowl of whiskey punch that Joseph Sedley drank, much to his disadvantage, in Chapter 6 ("Vauxhall") of "Vanity Fair". I contacted my friend and internationally known vintage cocktail expert Erik Ellestad. Mr. Ellestad got his start in the world of vintage cocktails by his continuing efforts to make every cocktail in the Savoy Cocktail Book, a classic and comprehensive cocktail recipe book published just after Prohibition. I contacted Erik and asked him what might have been in a whiskey punch made in England in 1847-1848 (the years "Vanity Fair" was published). He pointed me to this recipe which is basically whiskey (either Scotch or Irish), hot water, lemon peel, and sugar, with maybe a little nutmeg. Sounds pretty good to me. But alas, then I reread the passage in "Vanity Fair" and found that Thackeray describes the drink as "rack punch", rather than whiskey punch! Oops, was I drunk on punch when reading that passage?? Odd, I could have sworn I read "whiskey punch". Further inspection revealed that the reference to whiskey punch that I remembered was in Chapter 8, when Osborne and his men are singing songs in their barracks over a whiskey punch:
All things considered, I think it was as well the gates were shut, and the sentry allowed no one to pass; so that the poor little white-robed angel (Amelia) could not hear the songs those young fellows were roaring over the whiskey-punch.
Interesting. In the Vauxhall chapter, Joseph Sedley orders his rack punch, and Thackeray says that Osborne didn't like it. This seems like that the rack punch is then a different drink, as Osborne is clearly enjoying whiskey punch with his men two chapters alter. So what could "rack punch" be? With the help of google, I found this gem:
I must close with two familiar words which have been so long with us that few who use them ever suspect that they came from the East—namely, Punch and Toddy. The Rev. J. Ovington, who sailed to Bombay in 1689, in the ship that carried the glad news of the coronation of William and Mary, tells us that, in the East India Company's chief factory at Surat, the common table was supplied with "plenty of generous Sherash (Shiraz) wine and arak Punch," Arrack (properly "Urk"), sometimes abbreviated to Rack, means any distilled spirit, or essence, but is commonly used to distinguish country liquor from imported spirits. The Company's factors drank it because European wines and beer were at that time very expensive in India, and to reconcile it to their palates they made it into a brew called Punch, from the Indian word "panch," meaning five, because it contained five ingredients—viz. arrack, hot water, limes, sugar and spice. This was the ordinary drink of poor Englishmen in India for a longtime, and public "Punch-houses" existed in every settlement of the East India Company.
Now, one of the principal substances from which country liquor is distilled is palm juice, the native name for which, "tadee," has been perverted into "toddy" (as in the case of "cot" above-mentioned), and "toddy punch" meant the same thing as "arrack punch," Returning Anglo-Indians brought the receipt for making this brew to England, and lovers of Vanity Fair will remember how the whole course of that story was changed by the bowl of "rack punch" which Joseph Sedley ordered at Vauxhall, where "everybody had rack punch." How soon both the brew and its Indian name took firm root and spread among us appears from the fact that, at the Holy Fair described by Burns in the century before last, the lads and lasses sit round a table and "steer about the toddy."
Sounds like the same drink as whiskey punch, but made with Arrack (see here as well). Since Joseph had lived in India this makes total sense. I found these recipes for Arrack Punch, which are in line with the other punch recipes (booze, lemons, sugar, water) although the drink can include rum as well as the Arrack. But I think we at least have the gist of the drink that got Joseph Sedley so drunk, and then painfully hung over. But why didn't Osborne like it? Or was he just on his best behavior because of Amelia?
It's also interesting that Arrack can be made from palm juice, since Okonkwo and his tribe all drank palm wine in "Things Fall Apart".
Whew, that was some detective work. I think I need a drink now! One bowl of rack punch, please!