The past several years have seen a tiki revival of sorts. Tiki bars and restaurants are popping up all over. Even most non-tiki themed establishments have at least one hula-worthy drink on their menu. By hula-worthy, we mean punch inspired, of course.
You may not think of us as punch connoisseurs, because what does tequila have to do with rum punch? But…we do love adult beverages and the history of alcohol. On the surface, punch is an easy throw-together make-ahead drink that’s a surefire crowd pleaser. Beyond that, there is so much we don’t know that we decided to educate ourselves on punch and punch bowl history, as well as the modern punch masters.
Back to the beginning
Once upon a time, British merchant sailors set off to sea to discover new lands and wares. They soon realized that their ration of beer spoiled on the long journeys. Not to be deterred from their drinking, sailors got creative and made punch from ingredients they obtained on their travels. It is believed that the word punch is derived from Hindu “paantsch”, meaning “five”, referring to the 5 key ingredients of punch: sweet, sour, water, alcohol, and spice.
While the sailors take credit for inventing punch, a quick fact check determines that this is (most likely) a lie. The first documented reference of punch was in 1632. However, there are several plausible stories about the true origin of the libation, including crediting its creation long before the 1600s to the people of India whose language gave way to the name.
We could spend all day on a fact-seeking mission to uncover exactly who should be credited with this discovery, but if after 375 years, no true winner has emerged, our efforts will be better spent enjoying a good glass of rum punch.
Revisionist Mai Tai history
For the sake of this story, it doesn’t really matter who is credited for developing the cocktail concoction. Frankly, we don’t know who first put pineapple on the grill either. We just know it tastes good. And that’s good enough. Just as the origins of punch are a little fuzzy, tiki history isn’t any easier to trace.
Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt, who later changed his name to Donn Beach, is undoubtedly the founding father of the American tiki bar, known for serving rum punch at his Polynesian-style restaurant. In the early 1930s he opened Don’s Beachcomber in Hollywood, California. Forget The Ivy or the Bar Marmont. Don’s was THE place to be. Marlene Dietrich, Howard Hughes, Greta Garbo, the Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin were often seen at Don’s drinking Navy Grog or Zombie Punch, a mix of juices and (a lot of) rum blended with ice and served with mint sprigs and an umbrella. Be warned – the high alcohol content is masked by fruit juices and can turn even a seasoned pro drinker into a zombie. Now that would be an apocalypse we’d like to see!
During this same time period, further north in Oakland, California, Victor Bergeron, opened a small tropical influenced bar called Hinky Dink’s, renamed Trader Vic’s a few years later. Like their modern day counterparts, bartenders of the 1930s were always trying new recipes for their customers. One afternoon, Mr. Bergeron served a version of his rum punch for some friends visiting from Tahiti. Upon tasting the drink, one woman exclaimed “Maita’i roa ae” which loosely translated means “the best in the world”. And that is how the Mai Tai came to be.
It’s rumored (also Wikipedia verified) that it was actually Mr. Beach that mixed the first Mai Tai years earlier in 1933 at Don’s.
Just like the history of punch, we could spend all day trying to confirm or deny each camps claims to the Mai Tai. However, no one can dispute the influence that both of these men had on the tiki movement and the popularization of punch. After our copious note taking, we conclude that these business rivals should have bellied up to the bar and shared a Chi Chi or Scorpion Bowl and celebrated their successes instead of fighting about it. After all, punch drinks are best served out of a giant bowl and shared with friends, or even frenemies.
Super size me
One sip of a well-crafted punch (we did the research!) shows you why punch drinks still grace menus 70-plus years after Don’s and Trader Vic’s opened. While some serve punch individually, our favorite libations come in the super sized variety. Serve in a 32 ounce (and up) bowl like a Scorpion or Volcano Bowl, please. Though we may not agree on who made the first Mai Tai, we can all agree a punch drink, big or small, is always a good option.
During punch history class, we decided to make a tequila-based version of punch. The Nod to Donn Beach is the perfect recipe to double or triple and serve out of one of those bowls you undoubtedly eyed on when you clicked the Ebay link above. There would be no “he said/she said.” And no Wikipedia entry could discredit your mixology skills if you were to serve that at your next shindig.
- 3 tbsp (1.5 oz.) Azuñia Reposado Tequila
- 1 tbsp (.5 oz.) Reál Ginger Syrup
- .5 tbsp (.25 oz.) Orgeat
- 1.5 tbsp (.75 oz.) Funkin’ Passion Fruit Juice
- 1 tbsp (.5 oz.) Fresh Lime Juice
- 3 dashes Angostura Bitters Float
- Double Strain
- Top with Garnish
Garnish: Lime Wheel
Math isn’t our best subject
But we really like history. And science. If you like to learn, then class is in session every week, delivered straight to your inbox. To further your alcohol education, sign up for our weekly newsletter. We promise not every history lesson will be rooted in rumors. Some will be stated in fact.