A few years ago in Bridgetown, Barbados, the archaeologist Frederick H. Smith was excavating a seventeenth-century site when he unearthed a punch bowl. Then another, and another…eventually turning up bits and pieces of twenty-one bowls.
A tavern? No. “This was a single residence,” says Smith, the author of The Archaeology of Alcohol and Drinking. “They liked to drink a lot, and they liked to entertain a lot.” Which could be said of many of the people of the West Indies. Throughout the colonial era, punch spoke the universal language. The most common recipe was captured in a short ditty, easy enough for anyone to remember: “One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak.” This quatrain provided the basic guidance that for years enlivened untold bowls.
Be forewarned: It’s not especially good guidance for the modern age. The formula dates from when sugar was a newly affordable commodity, and “too sweet” was a phrase no one uttered, ever. This punch would be too treacly by half. Best to use an updated ratio: one part sour, one part sweet, two parts of spirit, and three parts of weak. That recipe offers both framework and flexibility. Think of it as an Ikea assembly diagram: It offers general guidance. You can change up the citrus, the spirit, or the type of tea in this recipe (red tea works wonderfully), then customize it with a splash of port or a liqueur.