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The Fish House Punch: A Relative Elixir

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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 ).

From the days when the individual cocktail was unheard of and everything was designed for large amounts of friends and guests — the Fish House Punch.

 

1 cup of sugar

3 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 cups fresh lemon juice (6-8 lemons)
1 (750 ml) bottle amber rum
12 oz. cognac
2 oz. peach brandy (1/4 cup)

 

Dissolve the sugar in the water. Then add rest of the ingredients. Chill before serving for at least three hours. 

Traditionally the punch is served over an ice block. This can be made with a cardboard orange juice container with the spout cut off. Fill with water and freeze. If you would like a clear block of ice, boil the water first, then cool. I used a silicone bundt pan for the ice block and floated some lemon wheels in the water before freezing. It looked lovely, if I say so myself.

If you are having trouble finding peach brandy and would like to use peach schnapps, be my guest, says my local liquor store proprietor (who is, by now, becoming curiouser and curiouser about my recent purchases). The brandy has peaches distilled in the original process while the schnapps has peach flavoring added after the fact. In a pinch, the schnapps will do. Besides, when you are pouring in a bottle of rum and a half bottle of cognac into a punch, how could a 1/4 cup of peach brandy or schnapps matter one bit? And with that kind of attitude, you can see why I mix cocktails, not bake cakes.

This punch is very easy to make, and it was a hit at a recent Christmas party I attended, lugging a punch bowl with me. Right before serving, I added some club soda to give it some energy. Some recipes call for champagne, but I opted for a non-alcoholic mixer. It is a strong punch — Christmas caution is advised. One added benefit — with all the citrus in this drink, scurvy will not be on your 2010 calendar.

W. C. Fields is incorrectly credited with saying, "rather here than Philadelphia." We know that's not true. Everyone wants to be in Philadelphia when the Schuylkill Fishing Club's Fish House Punch is ready.

 

Then, the party is over. You put your feet up. You move slowly from the mass to the me. Make yourself that elusive individual cocktail. Use some of that leftover cognac from the punch.

After a very successful Christmas evening, make yourself a sidecar. Not just any sidecar — a Ritz sidecar, so named because you are using cognac instead of brandy. Actually, cognac is a brandy, but it is a brandy made exclusively in the Cognac area of France under strict regulation. This relationship of cognac to brandy is analogous to Champagne and  sparkling wine — Champagne is sparkling wine made in the Champagne area of France, using the méthode champenoise.

 

The Ritz Sidecar from Ted Haigh's excellent Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails:

5 parts cognac (the older the better)
3 parts Cointreau
2 parts fresh lemon juice

Shake in an iced cocktail shaker. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass rimmed with superfine sugar, and have a Merry Christmas!

 

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About Kate Shea Kennon