Photograph by Drew Podo
Thousands of food enthusiasts, chefs, mixologists, and culinary authorities flocked to Midtown for the sixth-annual Atlanta Food & Wine Festival this past weekend. Tasting tents sprawled across Piedmont Park, serving cold drinks and great food, and experts from across the country led wine tastings and examined culinary histories in classrooms at the Loew’s Hotel.
One such expert was David Wondrich, Esquire’s drinks columnist and a James Beard award-winning author. In one class, Wondrich explored the evolution of Savannah’s famous Chatham Artillery Punch, a deceitfully sweet cocktail with cloudy origins, the most famous of which claims that the drink rose to popularity in 1791 when George Washington presented a cannon to the Chatham Artillery.
Wondrich doesn’t buy it. He asserts that the punch didn’t come along until the 1850s, citing an 1885 article for the Augusta Chronicle that attributes the punch to the work of A.H. Luce, a bartender who was celebrating a visit between the Republican Blues and the Chatham Artillery. “The Republican Blues were one of those social regiments that the South had lots of,” Wondrich said. “Their aim was to train young men in the use of arms, but mostly it was a chance to sit around in exclusive company and drink a lot.”
Luce created the new punch by filling a horse bucket with crushed ice and adding sugar, lemon juice, rum, brandy, whiskey, and Champagne. The drink remained popular among members of the Chatham Artillery, but it was relatively unknown until the mid 1880s, when a group of Southern journalists held a convention in Savannah. The journalists returned home, lauding the “delightfully palatable and insidiously strong” drink. It grew in popularity, and tales of the punch besting visiting dignitaries, including President Chester Arthur, swept across the nation. The stories fueled growing temperance sentiments, which combined with an increasingly gentile Southern society, lead to new, watered-down versions of the punch emerging in the early 1900s.
The cocktail gained another resurgence in the late 1930s, following the end of prohibition. While no longer watered down, the new recipes were drastically different from the original. They included liquors like scotch and gin, and some even left out the Champagne entirely. Below is Wondrich’s version, which closely follows the original recipe and is a worthy addition to any merry gathering.
8 ripe, yellow lemons
1 ½ cups sugar
1 pint of brandy
1 pint of rum
1 pint of whiskey
2 bottles Champagne (any dry, sparkling wine will do)
The night before you make the punch, thinly peel 8 lemons and muddle with sugar in a jar. The sugar will extract the oils from the lemon peel.
Fill a large bowl with crushed ice and pour in brandy, rum, and whiskey.
Juice the lemons until you have about a 1 ½ cups juice, then add to the lemon peel and sugar. Stir to dissolve the remaining sugar.
Strain out lemon peels and pour the lemon juice and sugar into the bowl.
Add two bottles of Champagne.