Punch Drunk, the birth of the cocktail and celebrity bartender

The route of the modern cocktail, as we know it today, started in India a long time ago. In fact, the earliest known use of the word ‘punch’ dates back to 1632,

For this story however, we will explore the influence of the merchant conglomerate called the East India Company, which formed in 1600, when it was spice, not gold, that drove the dreams of men. Nutmeg alone started four wars. It also commanded an impressive markup when sold back to European buyers, of upto 60,000 times the purchased value, with cloves, mace and pepper not far behind. This made the race to the ‘spice islands’ of the Far East and Western tropics the top priority for England.

The establishment of the East India Company monopolised the trade routes and dominated the competition from Spain, Holland and France. From the date of its founding, and for the next 90 years, the company would fight for supremacy in the East and West Indies. This ongoing fight evolved the Western taste for spice, war, liquor and the linking drink of the day – punch.

It’s commonly believed that the etymology of the word punch is taken from Hindustani, meaning ‘five’, referring to a beverage containing five key elements of sweet, sour, alcohol, water and spice.

The sailors of the time brought back the recipes of the exotic drink and by the 18th century it had well and truly arrived, with everyone drinking it.

The man to thank for that was actually a cheese merchant, James Ashely, and in 1731 he opened the ‘London Coffee and Punch House’ on Ludgate Hill. With his love of rum, brandy and arrack-based punches, he inadvertently became the world’s first celebrity bartender. The subsequent popularity of the drink, and other mixed drinks that followed, changed according to the laws and social norms throughout the years.

By the mid 18th century a young English colony called America was soon to declare independence. The founding fathers established a brave new world where the old punch would find its new home, provide the inspiration for a new drink known as the cock- tail, and with it, the next generation of celebrity bartenders, as the classic cocktails we all know today, were born.

Shri Restaurant and Lounge manager Richie Fawcett is an artist who sits on Asia’s 50 best bars voting panel. He is hosting invitation only ‘private viewings’ of his latest works every Thursday in the Shri Whisky Library, along with offerings of bottled and signature cocktails. Those interested can call Shri on (08) 3827 9631 and he will invite you personally if numbers allow.