Richard Patterson, executive director of the Old Barracks in Trenton, has some recommendations for 18th-century punches to add an extra kick to holiday festivities. Above, he poses in Colonial-era garb for a mural in Trenton by Illia Barger.

The punch and practice of Colonial patriots and loyalists: Drink up!

Since getting into the holiday spirit has become increasing linked to another kind of spirit made from grain, it is not unusual to shake our heads and ask “How have we strayed?” After all, those who came before us — the Pilgrims, the colonists, and the brave souls who fought the Revolutionary War — came from an era that was purer and healthier than we are, right?


A quick question to Old Barracks executive director Richard Patterson set the record straight with some spirited insights about alcohol consumption in ye-olde Trenton — and the colonies.

The Barracks, of course, is where the British housed the Hessian soldiers who unsuccessfully fought with Washington on December 26.

Christmas was not celebrated in 1776 as it is today — Twelfth Night or January 6 was the big seasonal holiday. For that reason the Hessian army was probably not as hungover as legend suggests. But glasses and bowls were certainly raised on Christmas night — just like any other night in the era.

Today the Christmas season is more pronounced as a time of sharing and partaking, and Patterson too has gotten in the spirit and shares some punch recipes that would have been familiar to the colonist.

So think of these concoctions as something from our spirited heritage and, for purists, just the right formula for a real old-fashioned holiday.

18th Century Toast: ‘Fathom the Bowl’
by Richard Patterson

In Britain’s 18th-century American colonies, beer was a common, daily drink with virtually every meal. Even people who considered themselves “temperate” (no hard or distilled liquor) drank beer (only someone who considered themselves a “teetotaler” abstained from even beer and plain wine). The last quarter of the 18th century — particularly the last decade — is estimated to be one of the periods of highest consumption of pure alcohol per person in our country’s history.

When men went to a tavern in the late 18th century, they commonly drank rum. In America it was the “drink of abuse” — affordable, plentiful, good kick — usually 100 proof, while in the second half of the 18th century, “the drink of abuse” in England was gin.

In America, by about 1800, whisky would start to replace rum in that capacity as folks moved westward beyond the Appalachians, and it was cheaper to distill their corn down into whisky and ship that East rather than ship the bulk corn itself, and they could get a much higher price for the whiskey. In New York and New Jersey, rum’s biggest rival would be apple jack or hard apple cider, as apple orchards had become very common.

One of the most popular drinks for a pair of men going to a tavern was a “punch.” Far from the genteel mixture imbibed from the bowl by small cups with pinkies extended, the two men would “fathom the bowl,” literally alternately drinking right from the bowl.

Punches were generally extremely sweet and extremely alcoholic, based on 100 proof rum, mixtures of wines, fruits, and lots of sugar. With all the sugar in it, fermentation would actually continue, making it ever stronger. The common person’s diet at the time only rarely included sweets, so when they were going to spend money to drink, “anything worth doing was worth doing to excess.” After all, they weren’t driving anywhere afterwards or operating complex machinery, and few could afford to do it very regularly.

Trenton in 1776 was home to between 900 to 1,000 souls, but it had a number of taverns, not unusual in that it was the head of navigation on the Delaware (ocean going ships could proceed no further north) and had two cable ferries: one where the Calhoun Street Bridge is, the other just south of the current bridges in the vicinity of the ballpark. To run a ferry one was required to run a tavern nearby to provide accommodation for travelers.

Trenton also was home to the Golden Swan Tavern, a building still at the corner of Front and Warren streets, the Royal Oak Tavern, and the Black Horse Tavern, among others. The southwest corner of the intersection of Warren and West State streets was home to a series of prominent taverns for more than a century.

Here are a few recipes that they used:

A Most Elegant Liquor. Take five to eight ounces of dark rum or brandy, as you wish, and put it to 24 ounces of fresh cool water, add to it the juice of half a lemon and two or three tablespoons of the best refined sugar. (If you are close to the West Indies, Muscavado or Havana brown sugar can be used). If you please, grate in some nutmeg. This makes about a quart of a most delicate, fine, pleasant, and wholesome liquor.

The Fish House Punch: Take one cup packed brown sugar and mix in a pan with four cups of water and boil five minutes. Squeeze the juice from nine lemons and pour into the hot syrup. Add the lemon rinds. Cool the syrup and chill overnight so that the flavors blend. Just before you serve the punch, remove the rinds. Mix in two cups of the juice of pineapples, a fifth of dark rum, half of a fifth of cognac, and four tablespoons of peach brandy. Mix well. Pack a large punch bowl with crushed ice and then pour the punch over the ice and serve.

Cherry Bounce: Take a half gallon of cherries and put into a stone crock five gallons in size. Take the same amount of cool, clear water and one pound of the best refined sugar and add to the cherries. Mash well. Add to this one quart of brandy and let set for four months covered with a cloth. Mix, stir and mash with a wooden spoon from time to time. Strain stones and pulp, and pour liquid into jars, seal and let age for another month.

Another Cherry Bounce: Take your cherries and mash them, stones and all. To every 5 pints of cherries, put a quart of rum, let it stand a week. Strain it through a flannel bag, for every gallon of bounce put three-quarters of a pound of brown sugar. Let age at least two weeks. Use as cheap rum as possible.

Cherry Shrub: Take three quarts of cherries, cut them in half, place in a double boiler, and cook them until the juice flows freely from them. Do not add any water. Then place them in a cloth-covered colander and press the juice from them. Discard the pulp, save the juice. To each pint of juice, add two cups of sugar. Stir to dissolve and set aside to cool. To each pint of juice, add a quarter cup brandy. Bottle and set aside for two weeks to season. To drink, pour one-quarter cup over ice, add water to taste, and stir.

Second Horse Punch: Mix a half pint light-bodied rum from the West Indies; half pint peach brandy, as made in South Carolina; half pint lemon juice; five tablespoons of bitters; and four tablespoons brown sugar. Stir thoroughly. If ice can be had, pour mixture over a large block. Add two to three pints of effervescent mineral water and serve at once.

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