Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Fish House Punch: A Relative Elixir or How to Muddle Through Somehow

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 Timescalled 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 m├ęthode 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!



Wednesday, December 16, 2009

More Beer Cocktails: We Won't Go Until We Get Some

We wish you a Merry Christmas
and a Happy New Year.

Good tidings to you, wherever you are.
Good tidings for Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Oh bring us a figgy pudding
and a cup of good cheer.

We won't go until we get some,
so bring it right here.


What to do with those pesky carolers who are demanding a figgy pudding when you don't happen to have one in the fridge? Bring them a cup of good cheer. They won't go away unless you do. But what if you find you are out of wassail? Give them a different beer-based beverage — the Boilermaker. That will shut them right up.

The Boilermaker — a serious beer cocktail. A serious college moniker. The Crawfordsville Daily Argus News of October 26, 1891 headlined, "Slaughter of Innocents: Wabash Snowed Completely Under by the Burly Boiler Makers from Purdue." Boilermakers at the time were synonymous with coal shovelers and stevedores — all names the Purdue team tried on, but the Boilermaker stuck. A boilermaker was a steel worker, then a basic shot and a beer, and then a shot in a beer.

As a cocktail, the Boilermaker made its first film appearance in 1938 in the Warner Brothers movie Gold Diggers in Paris, as a "boilermaker and his helper." There are many variations on this theme. Gin was the shot in the movie. Irish whiskey will make it an Irish car bomb — something not PC in this household. Sake will make the beer into a sake bomb, in an unimaginative turn of phrase.

I do admit that I am intrigued by the October Crisis: a dash of maple syrup in a shot of Canadian whiskey. The shot is then dropped into the requisite Canadian beer. Here in the U.S., the October Crisis tends to denote the Cuban Missile Crisis, but for our northern neighbors, it describes the October 1970 political kidnapping of two Canadian government officials by Quebecois separatists. The kidnapping ended tragically for one victim, and the whole plot did not go as planned, as Quebec is still part of Canada. The October Crisis is a drink that commemorates bad endings all around, which seems appropriate for dropping whiskey into beer.

I had a Boilermaker last night in the interest of science… and researching this blog. I was at a very tony bar — 42 in White Plains, New York. High over the city, 42 boasts one of the best views in the tri-state area. Unfortunately, we were hemmed in by an impenetrable fog, making the view irrelevant. I will have to go back there to try again for the view.

Being that it was a hedge fund crowd, I did not drink my boilermaker in the traditional way. Instead, in a very ladylike way (if ladylike is the correct term for what I do here), I surreptitiously poured my neat Maker's Mark bourbon into my glass of Samuel Smith porter. Sipping rather than chugging — it was all so classy, much more so than "a shot and a beer." For a caroler, however, I suggest dropping the shot into the beer — to save time, of course. There must be songs to be sung.


We'll move on to the marriage of two perfections, champagne and Guinness — the Black Velvet. Black Velvet can be a blended whiskey. It can be a dramatic pop song by Canadian Allanah Myles (again with the Canadians). Or it can be one of the better of the beer cocktails: sparkling white wine and a stout in a 1:1 ratio.

Not to be confused with Miller High Life, the Champagne of Beers, the Black Velvet is traditionally thought to be a British drink, created in 1861 in the Brooks club during the nationwide mourning period for Queen Victoria's departed husband. Black Velvet describes the black mourning ribbons men wore around their arms. The drink is also called the Bismarck, especially in Germany. It is named for Otto Von Bismarck, a big fan.


Some recipes call for the champagne to be poured first into a champagne flute. Other recipes call for the stout to go first. The top layer, whether champagne or stout, should be poured over the back of a spoon gently (which I acknowledge is difficult with champagne, which tends to have an energy of its own).

Hopefully, with a steady hand (not a hazard of this business), a layering effect will be produced. My results met with varying degrees of success. I tried both methods. Gruet first and then the Guinness; then I attempted the reverse. Based on my experiments, laying a base of Guinness first and adding the sparkling wine second leads to a more distinct layering.

Others on the drinking net say that Guinness on tap or even Guinness in a draught can will sit on top of the champagne better than the Guinness in a bottle. I wasn't able to make it happen, but I will keep trying in the name of education. Ultimately, I applaud those who just mash up both ingredients in a large pint glass and drink it down before the Sunday football game, or in this month's case, the holiday brunch!



Thursday, December 10, 2009

Here I come a-wassailing.....


















For the month of December, I'm concentrating on beer or ale-based cocktails in honor of the wassail. The wassail, as in "Here We Come A-Wassailing…" is a familiar and favorite Christmas carol but an unfamiliar beverage!

The song dates back to the twelfth century by some accounts, the tradition to even before that. The concept of "wassailing" may have pre-Christian roots, which makes it vintage indeed.



In those pre-martini days, to wassail was to carol at the big house, the feudal manor, in hopes of getting refreshment in return for song. In addition to house-visiting, there were also orchard wassailers — carolers who sang to trees in hopes of a good harvest. To our contemporary palates, a few cups of wassail and everyone is in danger of harmonizing to the backyard dogwoods.

To make my own wassail, I found a very doable how-to in a 1985 Christmas Memories cookbook from Mystic, Connecticut. The recipe is for a traditional Old English Wassail, based on John Bickerdyke's 1860 instructions on how best to serve this spiced ale beverage.

Mr. Bickerdyke's original wassail called for a half pound of sugar dissolved in a pint of warm beer. Add four glasses of sherry and four pints of beer. Throw a little ginger and nutmeg in there, let stand for three hours til the carolers come from the feudal kingdom next door, and you have yourself a little wassail.

The Mystic cookbook updated the recipe for a more modern beverage, but be warned, it is still heavy on the cinnamon and the cloves, to paraphrase Clarence the angel from It's A Wonderful Life.

The Wassail

4 cups of ale
1 stick of cinnamon
2 tsp. powdered ginger
6 whole cloves
6 allspice berries
1 tbs. ground nutmeg
2 cups of sherry
juice and finely slivered rind of one lemon
1/2 cup of sugar
2 slices of toast
6-8 roasted crabapples or 2 or 3 roasted large apples.

Heat ale in enameled saucepan but do not boil.

Stir in spices, sherry, lemon juice, rind and sugar. Stir until sugar dissolves, cover and steep over low heat for 20-30 minutes. Do not boil.

Pour into heated punch bowl. Add toast and apples. Ladle into warm punch cups.


I used Saranac's Pale Ale because it presents itself as a classic English Ale. How appropriate. For the sherry, I may have erred with using the La Ina from the Domecq Vineyards. It is the most refined of the sherries and may not have been robust enough to withstand all that pale ale, let alone all the spices.


I have included a picture here of the wassail in the punch bowl, but there is just no way to put toast and a roasted apple in a brown liquid and make it look delicious. Toast - yes! You see, this is where the term "to toast" comes from. Cheers!

The single serving is the way to go, at least photo-wise. The wassail is a conversation piece and makes the house smell lovely, but you may find your guests heading to the fridge for the leftover Saranacs.

In search of a more new-fashioned variation on the beer cocktail, I went to Mac's, a neighborhood legend of a bar in Maspeth, Queens, New York City. Mac's traces its roots back to the Prohibition, making it truly a speakeasy. Coleman McCarthy, proprietor, is pictured here on the right with friend Jim, proving once again the joy a speakeasy still brings.

I ordered a Shandy — traditionally a 50/50 beer/ginger ale combination. You will also see the Shandy served up as a beer/lemonade mix. If you ask for this in Europe, you won't receive what we think of as lemonade — fresh lemon juice, sugar, water — but rather a 7-Up or a Sprite, a lemon-based soda. Anecdotally, the Shandy was born in Irish and British pubs where the quality of the beer was suspect. A cover-up with a mixer was called for.

The Maspeth Shandy was a Bass Ale and 7-Up. Bass Ale, a bitter ale, agrees with the sweetness of the soda — a great alliance. Upon hearing my request, the bar's patrons were very helpful: "A Shandy! Perfect for a hangover." And so it is, but I'll leave that for a New Year's column. Fashionista and Shandy Fan Kate Reeves Sonnick, my taste tester for the evening, says there'll be more beer soon!

In conclusion on the wassail, as Blur, famous Brit-pop band and not-so-famous wassailers say:

Wassail, wassail all over the town
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree
With the wassailing bowl, we'll drink to thee.