Sugar, lemon, water, alcohol, and tea or spices—the original formula the British East India Company brought from India to England in the early 1600s and what we affectionately term punch. Widely popular in antebellum days, punch fell out of favor (and avor) in most parts of the United States after the Civil War. Except in the South. Folks here held fast to these powerful potables, which were, and are again, the beverage of choice at large social gatherings.
The precedent for punch popularity began with Southern militias, like the Charleston Light Dragoons. Founded in 1791 as an elite cavalry unit comprising the city’s wealthiest residents, the Dragoons evolved into a social club after the Civil War. The recipe they crafted at that time became a closely-guarded hallmark of their get-togethers.
Riding the wave of the classic cocktail revival, the South’s preferred party drink is making a comeback. Jayce McConnell, head bartender at Edmund’s Oast in Charleston, reports their Old Thyme Punch sells so well, they keep it in a keg and serve on draft. “I came up with the recipe because I wanted to put a punch on the menu that utilized ingredients—bourbon, rum, and Madeira—traditionally consumed in the Southern colonies, especially Charleston,” McConnell notes.
Punch fosters conviviality by de nition. “The punch bowl brings people together, sharing the same beverage, meeting new friends while catching up with the old,” observes Justin Simko, who manages Husk Bar in Charleston. And if you’re hankering to sip on some of that secret Dragoon Punch, Husk Bar serves an updated version based on the original recipe.
Try stirring up a batch for your next celebration, but be warned: this libation packs, well, a punch. There’s good reason an 1880s Chicago journal described the drink concocted by Chatham Artillery in Savannah as “the killer of time, the destroyer of bitter memory, the mortal enemy of despair.”
1 liter Evan Williams White Label bourbon
1 750ml bottle Madeira
1⁄2 750ml bottle Smith & Cross rum
3 quarts water
2 cups Demerara sugar 1 bunch fresh thyme
1 whole nutmeg, grated
Peel the lemons and place peels in a nonreactive bowl (reserve the lemons, as you will need them later). Muddle the peels with sugar, thyme, and nutmeg. Allow mixture to sit at room temperature for at least two hours or overnight in the refrigerator.
In the meantime, juice the lemons. When the lemon peel-and-sugar mixture is nice and syrupy, add the lemon juice and stir until all the sugar is dissolved. Strain through a ne-mesh strainer. When it’s party time, pour everything
into a punch bowl. You can add an ice ring or just ladle the punch into glasses over ice. Grate some nutmeg on top and garnish with fresh thyme.