What the Dickens: A walk with punch

A Christmas Carol
Ghost of Christmas Present with seething bowls of punch
When Charles Dickens died in 1870, his executors found over 200 bottles of cognac among his personal effects. They were labelled “Pale Brandy F Courvoisier”, so Courvoisier distributor Maxxium UK – which had a busy “summer of punch” – has been inspired to create a walk around central London mixed up with a bit of brandy cocktail history.

Working with Mark Prescott of creative and cultural agency Spark, they have come up with a brisk 50-minute stroll that starts and ends at Covent Garden Cocktail Club (which is yet to change its signage from its old name of London Cocktail Club). Dickens regularly refers to brandy punches in his works, such as the Ghost of Christmas Present appearing to Scrooge in A Christmas Carol alongside “seething bowls of punch that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam” (as the book’s original illustration by John Leech shows here). Mark Prescott has scoured the novelist’s writings to come up with recipes as inspiration for some invigorating drinks for people braving the bitter December temperatures for a bit of culture.

Drawing on a recipe quoted by Dickens in one of his letters, the tour starts off with a punch called The Dickens, made with Courvoisier Exclusif, fresh limes, pressed apple juice and spicy ginger beer, served with floating citrus fruits. On the evening we went, the number of attendees had been culled to just three because of the snow so there were seconds for everyone.

Rules restaurant
Rules restaurant and bar
It is then out into the freezing temperatures of a wintry night, with a stroll down Maiden Lane past Rules, dubbed Britain’s oldest restaurant and a favourite of Dickens. There is now a room of Dickens memorabilia (as well as the upstairs cocktail bar presided over by Brian Silva). But no time to dawdle for cocktails now, and we are off to gaze at the Charles Dickens Coffee House. This café was obviously not around in Dickens’ time under its current name, or even as a coffee house – in fact, it was the offices of his magazine, All the Year Round, from 1859 to 1870 and also his London lodgings for a few years before he died.

We stride past St Clement Danes Church which Dickens knew and mentions in his Christmas Stories. It is best known for the line from the rhyme, “Oranges and lemons say the bells of St Clement’s”, which, as Mark our guide points out, happens to also be two popular ingredients in punches. Another church now: St Dunstan in the West, which features in Dickens’ stories and is often regarded as the source of the bells that wake Scrooge up after his ghost-filled night in A Christmas Carol.

The Old Curiosity Shop, Portsmouth Street, London
The Old Curiosity Shop
Inevitably, the walk takes us down a side street to the Old Curiosity Shop which was an early passenger on the Dickens bandwagon. Built around 1567 from ship timbers, it was a book-binders which changed its name after the success of Dickens’s book, The Old Curiosity Shop, in 1841. It now sells gifts and vintage shoes and, according to many scholars, was not really the model for the shop in the novel. But let’s gloss over that and move on.

Next are the Inns of Court which figure in many of Dickens’ writings, pausing by 58 Lincoln’s Inn where his friend and biographer John Forster lived and Dickens held public readings of his works. Then it’s back towards Covent Garden past Bow Street magistrates court, where numerous characters from the Artful Dodger to Barnaby Rudge were tried. The historic building has been unused since 2006 and is currently due to be developed by Edward Holdings into a boutique hotel and bar.

A Christmas Carol
Scrooge and Bob Cratchit enjoy some Smoking Bishop
But we have not heard about cocktails or drinks for a while, so it is definitely time to head back to Covent Garden Cocktail Club for a reviving punch. The trip rounds off with a mug of warm Smoking Bishop, a punch that features in the final scene of A Christmas Carol where Scrooge reconciles himself with his put-upon employee Bob Cratchit: “I’ll raise your salary and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon over a Christmas bowl of Smoking Bishop, Bob!” The book’s final illustration by John Leech shows Ebenezer and Bob enjoying some Smoking Bishop in front of a hot stove on Christmas Day (pictured).

According to Dickens expert Michael Slater, the punch was made by pouring heated red wine over bitter oranges and then adding sugar and spices, creating a liquid with a purple colour similar to a bishop’s cassock. Courvoisier’s recipe mixes Courvoisier Exclusif with fresh ruby grapefruit and Seville oranges added to a hot pot of spiced red wine and port. At Covent Garden Cocktail Club, they enhance the experience by serving it from the retort pot of a small copper alembic still which the bar has previously used to make its own in-house gin.

The Courvoisier Dickens Punch Tour runs daily until December 19, with three walks on Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets cost £10 which includes the two punches. For details, click here..

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