“At last the dinner was all done, the cloth was cleared, the hearth swept, and the fire made up. The compound in the jug being tasted, and considered perfect, apples and oranges were put upon the table, and a shovel-full of chestnuts on the fire. Then all the Cratchit family drew round the hearth … and at Bob Cratchit's elbow stood the family display of glass. Two tumblers, and a custard-cup without a handle. These held the hot stuff from the jug, however, as well as golden goblets would have done; and Bob served it out with beaming looks, while the chestnuts on the fire sputtered and cracked noisily.”
So reads the finale of one of literature’s most memorable feasts—a Christmas dinner to rival all Christmas dinners. Unless you have the stomach of a Scrooge (before his change of heart), you’ve surely salivated over the Cratchits’ “phenomenon” of a roast goose, bursting with sage and onion, and Mrs. Cratchit’s plum pudding, decked with holly and flaming “like a speckled cannon-ball.” And who hasn’t yearned for a sip of Bob’s “hot stuff from the jug”—whatever that is!
Actually, as long as we’re fantasizing about that fictional feast, what exactly were Bob Cratchit and company swilling on Christmas Day? Dickens does not provide a full recipe in his famous novella, but he does give us a hint:
Bob, turning up his cuffs—as if, poor fellow, they were capable of being made more shabby—compounded some hot mixture in a jug with gin and lemons, and stirred it round and round and put it on the hob to simmer.
There you have it: Bob’s brew is a pitcher full of hot gin and lemons. Yum? If you think that doesn’t sound like a memorable cup of cheer worthy of the Cratchits, you’d be right. Either Dickens left out a few crucial details, or the Cratchits had terrible taste in beverages.
To solve the mystery of the “compound in the jug,” we first have to understand Dickens’ love affair with one of his favorite libations: punch. James T. Fields, a personal friend of Dickens, noted that the writer often “liked to dilate in imagination over the brewing of a bowl of punch,” according to Convivial Dickens: The Drinks of Dickens and His Times. And at no time did it grip Dickens’ imagination more than during the holidays, when it was an integral part of “all the attendant paraphernalia of Christmas,” as biographer Percy Fitzgerald write in The Life of Charles Dickens as Revealed in His Writings. “To hear him talk of the steaming bowl of punch … [of the] matchless gin-punch particularly, and the anticipating zest and relish with which he compounded these mixtures, one would fancy him quaffing many a tumbler.”
Appropriately, punch is everywhere in Dickens’ novels, whenever a drop of good cheer is called for—from the pages of The Pickwick Papers to David Copperfield to Nicholas Nickleby. So there’s little doubt that Dickens put cups of his favorite holiday beverage into the hands of the Cratchit family, the proverbial poster children of holiday cheer. But now that we know Bob Cratchit was mixing much more than just lemons and gin, is his actual recipe for “perfect” punch relegated to the lost drinks of literature?
Thanks to Cedric Dickens, the great-grandson of Charles, it is not. His book, Drinking With Dickens, which recreates the “delectable drinks” Dickensian characters would have enjoyed, also includes the famed author’s personal 1850 recipe for hot gin punch. So go ahead, indulge your literary fantasies: Turn up your cuffs like a self-respecting Cratchit and stir a draught of your own Christmas spirits.
Bob Cratchit’s Hot Gin Punch
Adapted from Drinking With Dickens
Yield: 6 servings
Time: About 30 minutes
2 cups Hendrick’s gin
2 cups sweet Madeira wine
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar, or more to taste
Peel and juice of 1 lemon, or more to taste
Peel and juice of 1 orange
1 pineapple, peeled, cored, and sliced
3 whole cloves
3 cinnamon sticks
Pinch of ground nutmeg
Put all the ingredients in a medium pot over medium heat. Bring the mixture to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes; taste and adjust the balance of flavors with more brown sugar or more lemon juice if desired. Pour the mixture into a jug or teapot and serve warm.
Correction, Dec. 30, 2014: The headline of this post originally misstated that the Cratchits drink the cocktail in question at the end of A Christmas Carol. They drink it in the middle of the book.