This blog post comes courtesy of Dr Margery Masterson (University of Bristol; @mm_masterson), whose work on Victorian culture and masculinity can be found here: ‘The political art of duelling’ in History & Policy and OpenDemocracy; ‘Bombay Graveyards and British Beaches: The Tale of a Victorian Imperial Scandal’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 19.3 (2014).
If there’s one thing that we’ve learned from 2016, it’s that the only kind of cheer we can be sure of comes in a liquid form.
Never have we been in more need of a cheering glassful and I’ve found the perfect antidote to the seasonal blues: Ruby Punch. This buzzy beverage ticks all the right boxes. It’s traditional, trending and can be traced directly back to Britain’s colonial heritage. This is all thanks to punch’s key ingredient of Ceylon Arrack.
This traditional Sri Lankan liquor is made from the palm tree sap, which has to be harvested by hand through a hazardous high-wire act. Artisanal arrack is making a comeback in the West, where it is an old-time favourite ripe for revival, and in Southern Asia, where properly distilled arrack is an upgrade on mass-marketed beverages that include artificial flavourings. The perfect synthesis of these two trends is to be found in a new Sri Lankan restaurant in Soho that specializes in arrack cocktails.
The Arrack Fund
Here I must admit that I first discovered arrack in the archive rather than at a speakeasy. My first introduction came through Adaseer Framjee, a nineteenth-century Parsi merchant living in the Bombay presidency cantonment of Mhow. His best customer was Sergeant Major Lilley of the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons. Unfortunately for Framjee, Lilley died in the summer of 1862. Unfortunately for Lilley’s commanding officer, the sergeant major died while under house arrest on the commander’s orders.
What killed Lilley? Was it grief of was it booze? The scandal around the death of Lilley and his consumptive wife while confined to their house eventually brought Framjee to England in order to testify about Lilley’s drinking habits. The merchant’s account books showed the Lilley had indeed steadily purchased port wine, gin, ale, porter, and, above all, brandy in the year before his death.
Yet Framjee’s records didn’t help the members of the court to learn whether this liquor and beer was drunk for legitimate or illegitimate reasons. Lilley had two legitimate reasons for purchasing considerable amounts of alcohol. First, his wife was dying of consumption and was prescribed brandy by their doctor. Secondly, as the Regimental Sergeant Major, he was in charge of the Arrack Fund.
Before I figured out what this fund was about, I needed to learn what arrack was.
Image: A monument to Tom King (1737); William Terrington, Cooling Cups and Dainty Drinks (London, 1867).
Arrack, from the Arabic araq meaning sweat or juice, trickled into the English language in the seventeenth century along with alcoholic beverages from South Asia. What’s confusing to Westerners is that arrack is a word for alcohol rather than a type of alcohol like rum, gin and vodka. Arrack is made with whatever fermentable substance is on hand: so dates in the Middle East, rice in China, and molasses in Indonesia.
It was this Batavia Arrack that, thanks to the Dutch, first appeared in the European market. It was a very popular spirit in the notorious coffee houses of the eighteenth century like Tom King’s in Covent Garden. If you look closely, you will see that the left barrel of King’s proposed monument is marked ‘ARRACK’. When the British seized modern-day Sri Lanka in the nineteenth century, Ceylon Arrack became a notable import as well. In nineteenth-century bars and pubs, when favorite recipes were finally written down by bartenders like William Terrington, most European punches were made with Batavia or Ceylon arrack.
These published accounts give us a glimpse into how the colonial trade shaped Western drinking. But the records of a merchant like Framjee gives us a glimpse into the drinking habits of ordinary European soldiers stationed overseas. The Arrack Fund was what the non-commissioned officers called their pool to purchase something additional to, and perhaps nicer than, the official British army alcohol rations. But was the Arrack Fund of the non-commissioned officers of the Inniskilling Dragoons actually for purchasing arrack?
Images: ‘Jessie’s wail over the grave of Havelock.’ Words and arrangement of Scotch airs by D. M. Aird and T. Browne (London, 1858). Henry Walker, ‘O come with me to the fountain, love! Teetotal ballad’ (London, 1859), Courtesy of the British Library.
Let’s dodge the question of what the Arrack Fund purchased for a moment – because honestly I’m not sure – and take stock of we can learn from this one cantonment’s drinking.
Firstly, and most interestingly for the medical historians, the medical profession was deeply divided about the role of alcohol in health. The postmortem on Samuel Lilley was performed to see if he had drunk himself to death even as his consumptive wife was being kept alive with brandy. Next, the imperial scholars among us will point to this further confirmation that the drinking habits of Europeans abroad did not happen in some kind of cultural vacuum. Local Indian vendors of spirits like Framgee were key in creating hybrid drinking practices in imperial communities.
Finally, and perhaps most interestingly for me, is what the case concluded about a suitably manly relationship to alcohol. The acquittal of Lilley’s commanding officer meant that Lilley was responsible for his own death. His drinking habits were officially deemed unhealthy. Yet many of his brother’s came forward to say that his drinking did not exceed the cantonment’s norms.
Yet the 1860s were a pivotal point in the teetotalling campaign, particularly for the British community in India. The so-called martyrdom of Henry Havelock after the Indian Uprising had elevated non-drinking into an act of manly self-mastery. Witness the wonderful ballad ‘Havelock the Brave’ that might had adorned the family piano at the same time as a courtship song about a teetotalling drinking fountain.
Did Lilley fall foul of changing public perceptions of the group drinking that had long been a staple of many male professions?
What’s your poison?
So to return to the question of what arrack, if any, the Arrack Fund purchased and to my little festive historical experiment.
I think the most likely explanation is that, in nineteenth-century India, arrack was something of an umbrella term for all distilled spirits. Gin, logically enough from an Indian perspective, was ‘English Arrack’. European communities, including military camps, may have simply borrowed the local terminology and not the local brew. As we’ve seen, Sergeant Major Lilley’s own booze bill included many Western imports did not mention arrack.
But if Ruby Punch was not precisely the beverage served in an Indian NCO mess, then it is still an imperial creation that was enjoyed all over the Anglophone world. Punch is, moreover, the most overtly social drink going. It is difficult to imagine the cut glass punch bowl as an everyday item, or the amber red liquid being ladled out by a single depressive drinker. It is the ultimate respectable alcohol.
At least that is what we are going to tell ourselves over and over again this holiday.
50ml Ceylon Arrack*
20ml Taylor’s Ruby Port
75ml English Breakfast Tea, brewed and cooled**
20ml Lemon Juice
15ml Sugar Syrup
Method: Shake/stir all ingredients together with ice and then strain over fresh ice. To make a generous punch bowl, use a whole bottle of arrack. Increase the rest of the ingredients until, like Terrington’s recipe, you have three parts tea to every two parts alcohol. The punch bowl should be the social centre of the party. The punch should be weaker than a cocktail and served in smaller cups to encourage repeat applications.
*You can buy Ceylon Arrack from plenty of online liquor distributors.
**Several nineteenth-century guides use green tea. Try it if you prefer a caffeine-free drink, but I suggest an extra spoonful of sugar syrup.
***The more improvised the equipment used, the more authentic the punch. If you have a measuring device of any description and something with holes in bottom then you’re good to go.
David Wondrich, Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl (New York, 2010).