Say you want a cocktail but only have a bit of rum, nutmeg, and lemon kicking around. Did you know you can make an elegant 18th-century punch? Oleo saccharum is the key.
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Photo: Getty Images
| Credit: Getty Images

Maybe you’ve seen it on cocktail bar menus or heard it mentioned in passing and thought it was an exotic disease that might strike a small animal or a type of herbal medicine. Nope, oleo saccharum is a bartender stock-in-trade nowadays. It’s delicious, cheap, and easy to make your own, to boot.

Latin for “oil sugar,” the substance originated in the early 18th century. “By the 1730s they were using it regularly,” says drinks historian David Wondrich, author of Punch: The Delights and Dangers of the Flowing Bowl and Imbibe! Sour orange was the citrus most frequently employed, he says, but lemon also became popular, and is the most common version you’ll see nowadays along with blood orange and occasionally lime.

Oleo saccharum is simply sugar mingled with the oil that citrus peel releases. It’s an easy way to add nuance and sophistication to the base of a punch. Its earliest incarnations, says Wondrich, involved people rubbing citrus right up against big, hard-packed loaves of sugar, which would absorb the oil. “We really don’t have that option” in the 21st century, he points out, so until a few years ago he would muddle lemon peels in a bowl of sugar and use the resulting aromatic sugar as the base of a punch.

One day he got interrupted, however, and when he returned to his project after a couple of hours, he noticed that a citrusy oil had separated out from the mix. Voilà: oleo saccharum. Nowadays he makes the oil by simply letting a mason jar full of sugar and citrus sit in the sun for a few hours. He says it plays well with whiskey, Cognac, rich rums, Armagnac, and even tequila.

I found it to be particularly lovely with bourbon, and suggest 2 oz of bourbon, 2 oz of water, and ¾ ounce of oleo saccharum (follow the recipe below) stirred with ice, then poured into a chilled glass over a fresh large cube of ice. Grate fresh nutmeg on top. (Adjust sweetness and tartness to taste with oleo and lemon juice, respectively.) If the drink tastes too “hot,” add a bit of water or sparkling water. Those bits of candied lemon peel? They’re yummy. Use them to garnish the drink, especially in a large punch bowl, reserve them for baking projects such as Dutch babies, or even use them on savory dishes. (They made this pork rillette tartine pretty fabulous.)

Play around with oleo saccharum recipes, but err on the side of simple. If a punch recipe calls for black tea or chamomile, it can work for a glass or two, but it can also “get very cloying very fast,” warns Wondrich. He likes to treat punch as a session drink: “What is the purpose here? The purpose is to have people drinking all afternoon. The purpose is to get the bowl finished. You just want it to be smooth and pleasant,” he says. “Those are my aesthetics… but also historic ones.”

With that in mind, make this easy-drinking, excellent 18th-century rum punch for a crowd. I’ve made it myself and agree with Wondrich’s recommendation that you serve it in very small cups. It, yes, packs a punch.

Sam Fraunces Punch

Lemon peels (from 3-4 bright-yellow fruits)
¾ cup sugar
¾ cup lemon juice, strained
1 (750-ml) bottle of Jamaican overproof rum
1 quart water
Ice ring (optional)

Make the oleo saccharum: Place lemon peels and sugar in mason jar. Seal, shake, and allow to set for at least 3 hours and up to 8 in the sun.

When ready to make punch, open jar and add lemon juice. Seal. Shake until sugar is dissolved. (With lemon juice added, mixture will keep in refrigerator for up to one week.) Pour sugar mixture into punch bowl. Add rum and water. Stir to mix. Add ice ring (or lots of ice). Add candied lemon peel from jar as garnish. Grate plenty of nutmeg on top. Serve in small chilled glasses.

Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in, Bon Appétit, Travel & Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen.