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Drink some history with punch mixes from Colonial Williamsburg

Andrea Castillo
Contact Reporteracastillo@dailypress.com

Just as many of us do today, the gentry of colonial America celebrated special occasions with a drink. Often for them, it was punch with a punch.

A proper punch was made up of five ingredients — water, citrus, spirits, sugar and spice — and was used to mark holidays, wedding social events and successful business deals.

Sold a horse or a house? Have some punch.

Your daughter is getting married? Have some punch.

Having a gathering among friends? Have some punch.

Colonial Williamsburg is looking to bridge the gap between historic beverages and modern-day ones by launching two punch mixes, Orange Ginger and Tart Lime, that can be made by the glass or punchbowl.

The recipes were put together by Frank Clark, head of Colonial Williamsburg's Historic Foodways program, and Drew Zywick, a mixologist at the Williamsburg Inn. The mixes are being produced by Virginia Beach-based Ashburn Sauce Company.

"We kind of hope to revive the practice of drinking punch in Virginia … after a hiatus of 200 years," said Clark.

Many of the early punches developed in India and were transported by sailors as early as the 1680s to other parts of the English-speaking world. By the 18th century, the drink was a popular one throughout the British Empire, Clark said.

Oftentimes, rum would be paired with lemon or lime flavors, and orange punches would be mixed with whiskey or brandy.

"Really, you can use any in either, but that's really how you see the recipe in the 18th century," Clark said, adding that the modern-day punch mixes were inspired by those recipes.

While the wealthiest residents in Virginia and elsewhere drank punch regularly, the sugar, spice and citrus were too expensive for the average resident.

"It wasn't the poor man's drink, but for the wealthy, its everywhere," Clark said. "Every time you sell a horse or sell some land, there's a bowl of punch."

It's not as if the common man didn't enjoy some version of punch, though.

Punches made with beer or wine also developed around this time, and some made do with drinks like bumbo, made with rum and water. Bonus points if a bit of sugar or molasses was available.

They varied by region as well, depending on what kind of liquor was available. Rum was more prevalent in New England, while peach and apple brandies were more common in Virginia.

Punches also were incorporated into events sanctioned by the government or local politicians.

During a king or queen's birthday, the governor provided residents with bumbo, and punches also were served to voters who chose the victor of an election, Clark said.

Susan Hoffman, Colonial Williamsburg's merchandise buyer, said the punch mixes add something new to the local beverage market.

"There isn't anything that explains the story of a good punch," she said. "It's a story tell in our taverns, to get people to think about the 18th century in a different way."

Besides liquor, the punch mixes can be combined with ginger ale or Sprite to create a family friendly, non-alcoholic alternative.

"It's a nice, refreshing drink, and you can be like your ancestors were 200 years ago," she said.

Hoffman believes the experience of eating and drinking is communal, and she hopes the punch mixes will be able to tell the history of Colonial Williamsburg in a way other products and experiences may not.

"It's something everybody shares in," she said. "It is something we all have in common."

The punch mixes will be available in 40 ABC stores in the Williamsburg area, as well as at Colonial Williamsburg and the Williamsburg Marketplace.

I tried buying a bottle to sample, but as I found during a call to a local ABC store, the product was only available in Montpelier in the western part of the state as of last week.

Still, keep your eyes peeled for the product as it makes its way to stores in the area. I know I will.

Castillo can be reached by phone at 757-247-4635.

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