Charles Dickens's Punch Recipe

Charles Dickens's Punch Recipe

[Photograph: Marleigh Riggins Miller ]

I have an admission to make: I paid very little attention to the ingredients in this punch when I selected it. I had to make it when I found that, instead of making an oleo-saccharum, the lemon peels and liquor are ignited. That's right: you get to light a bowl of booze on fire! (Insert Beavis and Butthead imitation here.)

The bonus is that the resulting punch is delicious, though that is still superseded by the fun/danger combo of hot, flaming liquid--a concept not unfamiliar to this punch's progenitor. As Wondrich notes, Dickens "was known among his friends for his ritualized performance as he worked up a bowl of jug, complete with running commentary on his ingredients, techniques and progress." (Though, unlike Dickens's John Jasper in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the author omits the dash of opium from his drinks.)

The punch itself is simple to make, but you will need some special equipment to prepare it safely. Namely, you'll need an enameled cast iron pot with a lid to ignite the punch and extinguish it, and a long-handled bar spoon to transfer the initial flame to the pot. Always bring fire to the alcohol rather than the alcohol to the fire or you're going to be in a bad situation. Once the blaze is extinguished, however, Charles Dickens's Punch is also particularly versatile, as it can be served hot from the bowl or cooled over ice. In the name of science I sampled it both ways and found each preparation delightful--soothing when hot, refreshing when chilled.

The bright flavor of lemon comes through strongly in this preparation, as do the earthy, sweet-rich vanilla flavors of rum and cognac. Rum and cognac are frequent companions in the punch bowl, as they taste tremendous together. A good-quality rum and cognac are important, as punch really hinges on the flavor of the spirits--just as it does in a great cocktail. A nice aged rum like the Plantation Trinidad or Barbados (vintage 2000) make a lovely base; for the cognac, try Dickens's preferred Courvoisier VSOP or my preferred Pierre Ferrand Ambre.

Technical note: If you have trouble getting the liquor to light, fill your barspoon with an overproof rum like Wray & Nephew White Overproof or Bacardi 151. It will ignite easily and stay lit through the transfer to the pot of punch.

  • Yield:16 (8-ounce servings)
  • Active time: 30 minutes
  • Total time:30 minutes


  • 3 lemons (preferably organic)
  • 6 ounces demerara sugar
  • 20 ounces Jamaica rum
  • 6 ounces cognac
  • 40 ounces boiling water


  1. 1.

    Using a vegetable peeler or paring knife, peel the three lemons, being careful to remove only the yellow peel and not the bitter white pith. Juice the peeled lemons and set aside.

  2. 2.

    Place the peels, sugar, rum and cognac in the cast iron pot.

  3. 3.

    Using a long spoon, remove some of the rum from the pot and light it with a match. While it is is flaming, carefully pour the burning liquor from the spoon into the pot, igniting all of the spirits.

  4. 4.

    Allow to burn for three or four minutes, then extinguish by covering the pot with a tight-fitting lid.

  5. 5.

    To the extinguished spirit-sugar-peel mixture, add the reserved lemon juice and the boiling water. Stir well, cover, and let sit for five minutes.

  6. 6.

    Remove the lid, stir again and taste. Adjust the sweetness with sugar or water if necessary.

  7. 7.

    Place the pot, covered, on a burner and simmer for fifteen minutes. At this point, you can serve the punch immediately as a hot drink, but remove the lemon peels if you expect to have the punch sitting for more than two hours.

  8. 8.

    Alternatively, you can allow the punch to cool to room temperature and serve over ice.