How Chatham Artillery Punch Became Savannah’s Signature Cocktail

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Atlanta may serve as the economic engine and political capital of Georgia, but when it comes to tourism, it’s tough to find a better city than Savannah. Blessed with historic cobblestone streets and a wealth of oak-shaded parks scattered across an easily navigable grid, the city has enjoyed nationwide popularity over recent years — a fact that’s certainly aided by its spectacular food and drink scene. Classic Southern dishes like fried green tomatoes and shrimp and grits grace the tables of Bay Street’s top restaurants, yet when it comes to the realm of cocktails, one particularly boozy concoction has gone largely unnoticed outside of the Peach State coast.

A fearsome, stirred blend of brandy, bourbon, and rum, topped with sparkling wine, the Chatham Artillery Punch has been a prominent player in Savannah cocktail culture for over a century. The genesis of this iconic beverage, however, is largely shrouded in mystery. In a city famed for hair-raising ghost tours, the Chatham Artillery Punch is a specter in itself, appearing across storied speakeasies and polished cocktail bars with no clear evidence of its origins.

“While the ‘where’ of Chatham Artillery Punch is quite simple, the ‘when’ is murkier, [as is] often the case with cocktail history,” notes Travis Spangenburg, creative and production manager at Savannah’s American Prohibition Museum. “Some stories mark the first serving of the punch all the way back to before the Revolution with some saying it was served to George Washington during his 1792 visit.”

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This theory is certainly cinematic, yet a more credible hypothesis centers around a lesser-known military figure — Savannah’s Republican Blues militia. According to lore, the Chatham Artillery, Georgia’s oldest military unit, hosted the group for a party during the 1850s, providing an opportunity for the soldiers to try their first intoxicating sip of the Chatham Artillery Punch. Soon vaulted to stardom across the South for its “delirious deliciousness,” the drink went on to achieve nationwide acclaim, even earning the moniker “vanquisher of men” thanks to its ability to send even the most grizzled boozers into a state of total inebriation.

In addition to its unclear origins, Spangenburg also notes that the Chatham Artillery Punch has traditionally been a bit of a chameleon in terms of composition, with a wide array of variations coming into play over the decades. While the Prohibition Museum’s on-property speakeasy, Congress Street Up, sticks to the earliest recorded recipes (a 1:1:1 blend of rum, brandy, and bourbon with an added dose of sugar, lemon, and sparkling wine), ingredients like green tea and Catawba wine are just a few of the additions that have popped up in later recipes. Meanwhile, the post-Prohibition reborn interest in the cocktail set the scene for some serious freestyling — a quality that Spangenburg finds particularly fascinating.

The Savoy Society in Savannah makes the Chatham Artillery Punch.
Credit: Savoy Society

“Today, Chatham Artillery Punch can be more like shorthand for ‘concoction of different alcohols, teas, and juices made by someone partying in Savannah,’” he notes. Though there may not be one specific recipe to adhere to, Spangenburg sees the cocktail as a sort of time capsule in liquid form, inviting visitors to taste the rich array of variations that have arisen over the decades. “You can literally drink yourself through Savannah’s history without changing your bar order.”

Drinking through Savannah’s history comes easy in this booze-forward (and -friendly) city — in large part due to its lack of open container laws, à la New Orleans. For those wishing to uncover a more refined take on the cocktail, there’s one bar in particular that’s mastered the art of the contemporary Chatham Artillery Punch. Known as Savoy Society and opened in 2019, the polished drinking space has earned local acclaim for its top-notch cocktails, and in typical Savannah fashion, the city’s favorite spirit-heavy cultural staple plays a starring role on the menu.

The bar’s Chatham Artillery Punch recipe features one part Appleton rum, one part Darvelle brandy, one part Rittenhouse rye, lemon oleo saccharum, Yaupon Tea Company Dark Roast, and cava. “When we opened Savoy Society we wanted to have a C.A.P. on our opening menu,” says Jane Fishel, owner of Savoy Society. “We also wanted to incorporate a local ingredient and decided to add the yaupon tea to add a kick and slight bitterness. Three years later and it is one of our No. 1-selling cocktails.”

While the Chatham Artillery Punch has captured the hearts — and ravaged the livers — of many a Savannah tourist, the beverage has earned special status in the eyes of Chatham County’s local population as well. Longtime Savannah resident Jesse Blanco heralds the cocktail’s lengthy ties to the culture of the city itself.

“C.A.P. really checks all the boxes when it comes to a unique cocktail that you won’t find in too many other places,” says Blanco, creator of Southern cuisine-focused television series “Eat It and Like It.” “For all of Savannah’s natural beauty and architecture, we remain a drinking town. Our to-go laws make it so.” Then again, as Blanco adds, the Chatham Artillery Punch is akin to the city’s Long Island Iced Tea. “It’s strong, it’s fruity, and it hits the spot during our warmest months of the year,” he says. “It can get pretty steamy down here and the C.A.P. is a perfect cool-off drink.”

While Savannah has joined the ranks of New Orleans as a Southern getaway for drunken debauchery, there’s more to the city’s drinking scene than cheap draft beer and Wet Willie’s splashed haphazardly along the cobblestones of River Street. Some of Georgia’s most sophisticated cocktail bars can be found scattered throughout the city’s Historic District, each one offering its own personal spin on this liquid emblem of Savannah history. Titanic in both flavor and ABV, the cocktail is beloved by first-time visitors and lifelong Chatham County natives alike — just don’t expect to catch a whole lot of locals slugging down the drink during a typical night on the town.

“Because of the fact that it is considered ‘our cocktail’ I think it is fair to say C.A.P. is most popular with tourists,” says Blanco. “Among locals, you are most likely to find it at a cocktail party that your neighbor invited you to but you will rarely see a local ask for one at a bar. I mean, how often do New Yorkers visit the Statue of Liberty?”