An 1885 article for the Augusta Chronicle ascribes near-mythic strength to Chatham Artillery Punch, cautioning readers that “As a vanquisher of men its equal has never been found.”
The journalist accredits one A.H. Luce with inventing this potent, large-format cocktail in the 1850s, in honor of a celebration between the Chatham Artillery and the Republican Blues, a volunteer regiment. According to David Wondrich, author of Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl, such regiments existed to teach young men about the use of arms, but “mostly it was a chance to sit around in exclusive company and drink a lot.” To sate the crowd of merrymakers, Luce grabbed a bucket, filled it with crushed ice, lemon juice, and sugar, then mixed in rum, brandy, whiskey, and champagne.
Members of the Chatham Artillery kept the concoction in rotation, but it rose to fame when a group of journalists visiting Savannah encountered the lethal libation on a riverboat cruise. After the writers published sensational reports about being obliterated by Savannah’s Chatham Artillery Punch, readers tried to figure out what, exactly, had done them in. Countless variations sprung into existence, calling for everything from Catawba wine and rum to maraschino cherries, scotch, and gin. Savannah’s visitors of status, including President Chester A. Arthur and Admiral George Dewey, also succumbed to the powers of the punch, which only fueled its intrigue and infamy.
As anti-alcohol sentiments grew in the early 20th century, recipes began to reflect the watered-down wills of the temperance movement. After prohibition ended, Chatham Artillery Punch reappeared on the scene in the 1930s, reflecting decades’ worth of recipe modifications. But it wasn’t just a game of telephone that altered the elixir’s composition. As a recipe note from 1907 phrased it, “Experience has taught the rising generation to modify the receipt of their forefathers to conform to the weaker constitutions of their progeny.”
Where to Try It
This Savannah restaurant claims an alternate Chatham Artillery Punch origin story, which alleges that when George Washington visited the city in the 1790s, he donated two cannons to the Artillery and was honored with a feast during which the drink was first served.