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The Punch You Add a Spoonful of Fire To (Literally)

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It’s time for yuletide cheer, a fire crackling away, a flowing bowl of warming punch, and a dramatic reading of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. What could possibly contribute more to making the season bright?

But, wait. Perhaps we can make a good thing better. We live in the era of the cronut. The cruffin, the pie milkshake, the cherpumple. These creations—whether you think they are Frankenstein’s monsters, genius, or both—have shown us if you have several things you like, you may as well mash them all together into a single thing and see if you like it even more. Can this be accomplished with a fire, punch, and Charles Dickens? The answer is resoundingly yes.

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But how, you say? The answer is Charles Dickens’ punch.

Updated Charles Dickens Punch
Updated Charles Dickens Punch

It turns out Mr. Dickens, in addition to being a trenchant observer of Victorian society, was a lover of punch. Not only does punch make frequent cameos in his writing, he even developed his own recipe, which he shared it in a letter to a friend. And—oh holy night!—you light the whole bowl of booze on fire. This has the double purpose of creating a mighty show and caramelizing the sugar in the punch. I suppose it also burns off some of the alcohol, which is not a terrible thing when you see how much is in the recipe.

Oleo saccharum in the making.
Oleo saccharum in the making. Photo by Emily Vikre

Charles Dickens’ punch, as transcribed in his letter and later recovered and shared with the world by cocktail historian David Wondrich, begins with a classic punch technique that’s nifty in its own right: oleo saccharum, a sugar infused with citrus oils. It’s made by rubbing a good amount of citrus peels (shaved off with a peeler, leaving as much pith as possible behind) together with plenty of sugar and letting it sit. After a while, the sugar draws the intensely fragrant oils out of the peels. You can then add liquid and strain the peels themselves out. Any punch will benefit from oleo saccharum. So will many cocktails, or your lemonade. I’ve even used mixed citrus oleo saccharum to start my own version of Red Bull (I make my own vermouth. Why wouldn’t I try to make my own Red Bull?).

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Use something that can withstand heat for this—like a Dutch Oven.
Use something that can withstand heat for this—like a Dutch Oven. Photo by Emily Vikre

For the punch, after making an oleo saccharum, you add a hefty amount of rum and brandy. Then you add a spoonful of fire. That is, you light a spoonful of the mixture on fire and gently lower it into the rest of the mix. The whole bowl—and by bowl I mean fire-safe container; I recommend a Dutch oven for this part of the process—will flame and catch into a cheerful blaze, which can you use to warm your hands for a couple minutes before extinguishing it by covering the pot with a lid. After this you add more liquid (Dickens calls for tea) and lemon juice, and strain the whole thing into a punch bowl over a great deal of ice. Cue the Bing Crosby and wassail away!

Now, I don’t mean to be at all critical of Mr. Dickens’ punch. But, when it comes down to it, it follows a pretty basic punch template: strong spirit, oleo saccharum, tea, spice. This also makes it a good jumping-off point for tweaking it to your taste. I don’t love rum, so I switch his ratio of rum to brandy to favor the brandy instead. You could also try other high proof spirits. You can add to the tea with a variety of fruit juices, like apple cider, pineapple juice, or other citrus juices in addition to the lemon. Try throwing in cinnamon sticks or a vanilla bean or stir some vermouth in with the tea for extra spice. The punch is yours to customize. Just don’t leave out the fire.

Photo by Emily Vikre
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Updated Charles Dickens Punch

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Serves 12
  • 1/2 cup sugar or demerera sugar, if you have it
  • The peels (no pith) from three lemons
  • 2 1/4 cups brandy (recommended: Courvoisier VSOP)
  • 1 cup rum (recommended: Smith and Cross)
  • 4 cups brewed strong black tea
  • 2 cups fresh apple cider
  • Citrus wheels and freshly grated nutmeg to garnish
  • A big ice cube or ring for serving in the punch bowl

Fiveandspice, a.k.a. Emily Vikre, is a writer, self-described "food policy wonk," and co-founder of Vikre Distillery. She lives in Duluth, Minnesota. You can read more of her writing here.

Tell us: Have you lit a punch on fire before?