Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Whiskey Punch Update

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!


Anonymous said...

This is the best blog ever.

A couple of notes on punch. I've been reading about Dickens basically killing himself giving performances on an American tour, while his hosts James T. and Annie Fields (young hottie) were obsessed with him, thinking they were hanging out with the Shakespeare of their time. It might jog your scientific bent to take a look at Dickens' illness, but it seems that he started out with the flu, and this was in pre-antibiotics days of course. But every night, after every exhausting, transcendent performance, Dickens insisted on brewing the punch himself. Worth your study. zhiv.wordpress.com/2008/09/07/annie-fields-and-charles-dickens/

The other canonical/Victorian drinking story that you might appreciate, which I left out of my two posts on WDHowells' "The Rise of Silas Lapham," is a fantastic scene where Silas goes to a fancy dinner for the first time and gets smashed. I don't remember any other sustained drinking scenes so critical to a 19th c. plot, though I expect you to note them in your progress. zhiv.wordpress.com/2008/10/06/the-rise-of-silas-lapham-william-dean-howells/

Glad you're enjoying Thackeray. Would love to see you add Henry Esmond to your list, but don't want to interrupt your marvelous flow. Onward!

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

I second zhiv - this was some fine research.

I don't know if they quite count as drinking scenes, but it is very common in E. T. A. Hoffmann stories that weird things only start to happen after someone has a had a drink or a puff of something.

I'm also reminded of the scene in "The Old Curisoity Shop" where the demonic villain torments his own lawyer by making him drink boiling punch.

Lisa C. Hayden said...

Enjoy the punch and the book... I loved it when I read it 20 years ago, for, yes, a course on "War and Peace." Thank you for the blog -- I hope it's as much fun to write as it is to read!

Robby Virus said...

Thanks for the kind words, everyone! My goal is to leave no alcohol-related question unanswered when it comes to the world's great literature. This project/blog has been a blast for me, and I'm glad that you're enjoying it as well1

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the work on rack punch. I had the same question when I read VF, but was unable to get as far in my research as you were. My wife was complaining about all the empty bottles.

But there is one question you did not answer. What does it taste like, this Arak? Have you tried to make rack punch from it?
Inquiring minds want to know.

connie said...

I'm wondering if Arak tastes like that nasty liquor of Greece, Raki,
or Sligovitza of Yugoslavia, equally nasty, which are basically grain alcohol. worst hangover ever.

Robby Virus said...

Hi Connie, I haven't had those liquors before, but when I tried some Arak straight it wasn't bad...tasted like rum as I recall. It definitely wasn't horrible.