Please, I implore you, read the Vanity Fair Cocktail Talk Part I, so you can hear more about the book, where I land on it, and on what seven glasses of Champagne does to you. Here, we’re not going to get too deep into the book proper, as we have a long Cocktail Talk below, and it’s a good one, funny in a tipsy way, full of eating and drinking, featuring some of the book’s main characters, and highlighted by Rack Punch. Rack Punch! A curious thing, Rack Punch. It’s hard to pin down. I mean, I’m sure a genius cocktail historian like David Wondrich would know without looking up from his drink, but I can’t bother him. It’s either punch made with Batavia Arrack (rum-ish spirit made with sugar cane and a bit of fermented red rice), used in many tiki recipes or Arak, the grape-based anise spirit from the Levant area of the Eastern Mediterranean. You look it up and you’ll see Rack Punch using either one or the other (and even one spot that spells it Arrack but talks about it as if it was Arak!). My feel, my lean, as you might say, is it was made with Batavia Arrack. As it’s rum-y, that would match the time, and I don’t think Arak had made the inroads to Britain that rum and relatives had at the time. Also, the basic punch – sugar, lemon or other citrus, water, maybe some spices – would just pair better with it, as opposed to the anise-side, in my view. Both could be delicious, but that’s my take (btw, both spirits are delicious. The below Cocktail Talk is delicious, too).
The two couples were perfectly happy then in their box: where the most delightful and intimate conversation took place. Jos was in his glory, ordering about the waiters with great majesty. He made the salad; and uncorked the Champagne; and carved the chickens; and ate and drank the greater part of the refreshments on the tables. Finally, he insisted upon having a bowl of rack punch; everybody had rack punch at Vauxhall. “Waiter, rack punch.”
That bowl of rack punch was the cause of all this history. And why not a bowl of rack punch as well as any other cause? Was not a bowl of prussic acid the cause of Fair Rosamond’s retiring from the world? Was not a bowl of wine the cause of the demise of Alexander the Great, or, at least, does not Dr. Lempriere say so?—so did this bowl of rack punch influence the fates of all the principal characters in this “Novel without a Hero,” which we are now relating. It influenced their life, although most of them did not taste a drop of it.
The young ladies did not drink it; Osborne did not like it; and the consequence was that Jos, that fat gourmand, drank up the whole contents of the bowl; and the consequence of his drinking up the whole contents of the bowl was a liveliness which at first was astonishing, and then became almost painful; for he talked and laughed so loud as to bring scores of listeners round the box, much to the confusion of the innocent party within it; and, volunteering to sing a song (which he did in that maudlin high key peculiar to gentlemen in an inebriated state), he almost drew away the audience who were gathered round the musicians in the gilt scollop-shell, and received from his hearers a great deal of applause.
–William Thackeray, Vanity Fair