There's a little place just out of town,
Where, if you go to lunch,
They'll make you forget your mother-in-law
With a drink called Fish-House Punch.
-- The Cook (1885)
In our Christmas trip down distillery lane, let's stop first at
the greatest of all American Punches. It deserves to be protected by law, taught in the schools, and made a mandatory part of every Fourth of July celebration, with dilute portions given to those not yet of legal age, so that they may be accustomed to the taste.
This glorious review is for the Fish House Punch as described by David Wondrich, cocktail historian, in his book Imbibe. Christmas gift suggestion there — please don't say I never gave you anything.
Wondrich has no faint praise, but this punch is not limited to the Fourth of July barbecue. Actually, the beverage is an important part of the Christmas celebrations at one of the original Old Boys Networks, the Schuylkill Fishing Club in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The 1905 New York Times called it the oldest dining club in the world, older than the "famous Beefsteak Club of London — founded in 1739." In the mid-19th century, the club opened its Christmas parties to women. The ladies were served this punch in an effort to liven things up, not that a exclusive men's club would necessarily need to liven things up.
Established by 27 Quakers, two of whom came to Philadelphia with William Penn, the Schuylkill Fishing Club was what it claimed to be — all about fishing, with some incidental eating. The organization built its clubhouse , called the Castle, on the banks of the Schuylkill River with permission of the local Leni Lenapes tribe.
One of the most unique aspects of the club, pointed out in the 1905 Times article, is the obligation of each member to take his turn in preparing the annual dinner:
In this he may have as assistants two or three apprentices who are awaiting to be admitted to full membership. No servants are employed. The apprentices — not infrequently men past middle age — wear white aprons and white straw hats and must comport themselves respectfully and obediently, in helping to cook the dinner and in serving it.
More to the point, the punch:
The standard beverage is Fish House punch, mixed in a huge punch bowl by three citizens, solemnly elected for that office. The exact ingredients and their proportions is the secret of the 'State' in Schuylkill and has been handed down from generation to generation. The recipe for the blending never has been revealed although so-called Fish House punch has been served for years at dinners in different parts of the country. All these are imitations — some of them very good, but not one the real thing.
One "imitation" I lifted recently is from the 1951 Gourmet magazine (now defunct, but with recipes still on their website for an undetermined length of time — gather ye concoctions while ye may ).