Charles Dickens’ favorite beverage

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Mister Micawber examining a glass or properly made punch. From “David Copperfield.”

Charles Dickens is revered, but only a few of his works are frequently read, which is a pity. A look at his writings reveals not only a lot about his society, but also much about the author that we can sympathize with. That goes double if we appreciate the pleasures of the table. Dickens was a sensualist and an enthusiast for the finest food and beverages. He was a rare Victorian gentleman who did much of the shopping for his household, and purchased the finest wines, whiskeys, and brandies for his cellar. In appreciating good scotch whiskeys he was ahead of his time, because that was not a common enthusiasm in those days.

The beverage that he seems to have most enjoyed was a punch of his own recipe, which he wrote down in a letter to his cousin Amelia Austin Filloneau, who evidently had requested it after a party or gathering at his home. He sent a it to her on January 18, 1847, with the note, “I hope it will make you a beautiful punchmaker in more senses than one.” The recipe and abridged instructions are reprinted by permission from Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl by David Wondrich, Perigee Books, copyright 2010. If you are at all interested in beverages of the Victorian period, you should own at least one copy.

Please note that if you recreate this beverage, neither that author or Richard Foss may be held responsible for kitchen fires, inebriation, sudden and unforeseen attraction to other people consuming it, or other consequences.

Original recipe: To make three pints of punch, peel into one very strong common basin (which may be broken, in case of accident, without damage to the owner’s peace or pocket), the rinds of three lemons, cut very thin, and with as little as possible of the white coating between the peel and the fruit, attached. Add a double handfull of lump sugar (good measure), a pint of good old rum, and a large wine-glass full of brandy- if it not be a large claret glass, say two. Set this on fire, by filling a warm silver spoon with the spirit, lighting the contents at a wax taper, and pouring them gently in. Let it burn for three or four minutes at least, stirring it from time to time. Then extinguish it by covering the basin with a tray, which will immediately put out the flame. Then squeeze in the juice of three lemons, and add a quart of boiling water. Stir the whole well, cover it up five minutes, and stir again.

            At this crisis, having skimmed off the lemon pips with a spoon, you may taste. If not sweet enough, add sugar to your liking, but observe that it will be a little sweeter presently. Pour the whole into a jug, tie a leather or coarse cloth over the top, so as to exclude the air completely, and stand it in a hot oven ten minutes, or on a hot stove one-quarter of an hour. Keep it until it comes to the table in a warm place near the fire, but not too hot. If it be intended to stand three or four hours take the lemon peel out, or it will have a bitter taste.  

Suggested modern procedure: Use an enameled cast-iron pot for the basin, or something else heatproof, but not aluminum. A crockpot can be used, but let it heat to medium before setting the fire. This will fume eh alcohol, and eliminate any danger of cracking the crock.

Use six ounces of Demerara sugar, 20 ounces of rum and 6 of Courvoisier VSOP, the kind Dickens kept in his cellar. David Wondrich’s book has an essay on recommended rums – brands include Smith & Cross and Sea Wynde. I use Jamaican medium dark rum or a mix of Myers’ dark and an amber rum – the more expensive rums do make a slightly better product.  You can use Raynal brandy, which has a cognac flavor but is far less expensive.

The fire melts the sugar and extracts the oil from the lemon peel. Dickens’ advice about lighting the spirits from a metal spoon is sound – do not try to light the whole pot while holding the match in your hand. You may have trouble lighting the alcohol on fire unless you heat the mixture slightly to make it fume. The alternative is to take a more alcoholic rum, like Wray & Nephew overproof, and use a spoonful of that as a liquid fuse. If you heat this over a stove be very careful to avoid spills because it will burn.

 The water should be Imperial measure, or 40 ounces, rather being based on the American quart, which is 16 ounces rather than 20.

The punch can be drunk hot or cold, and if you remove the lemon peel will keep for days if kept cool and sealed. Grate a bit of fresh nutmeg over each cup before serving for an added Victorian flavor. Dickens was a master punchmaker, and the sweet and sour flavor with a hint of spice will delight your guests. When you serve it, raise a glass to the master of literature and hospitality.