Fish House Punch.
Before the drinking world settled on the cocktail as its sophisticated drink of choice there was another concoction that oiled the wheels of the well-to-heel. The punch – likely of ancient Indian origin – was de rigeur amongst the wealthy, ships officers and not a few pirates. In its heyday from around 1750 – 1880 the punch was all the rage and spawned a whole range of new tableware in the form of elaborate punch bowls, cups and spoons. The arrival of the cocktail craze (c.1880 – 1970 and 2000 – ∞) largely killed off the punch as there was more cachet to having one’s drink prepared lovingly and individually.
Suitable for the watering of a larger number of guests than individually mixed drinks the punch gives the host the opportunity to enjoy the gathering without being chained to the shaker all evening. Better still the punch can largely be prepared in advance – and indeed certain components must be prepared in advance (we’ll get to that) – making it ideal for parties. With – hopefully – the end of coronastrictions on larger gatherings in sight, now might be a good time to raise our punch game in time for the inevitable round of get-togethers with those we have missed of late.
The most famous of all punches is surely the Fish House Punch which, despite the somewhat unappetising name, is both delicious and has a long and colourful history. In the days before the United States was either there was a gentleman’s club in what is now Pennsylvania called the Colony in Schuylkill. This very exclusive club was founded in 1732 and let’s just say had delusions of grandeur as it decided it was an independent state (so you could say the first state of the USA), gave its members fancy titles and indeed changed its name to The State in Schuylkill in 1782 when declaring statehood was trending. Their signature drink was the Fish House Punch which was served at every meeting since at least 1744 and perhaps earlier. George Washington was an honorary member who, legend has it, once enjoyed the punch so much that he was unable to make an entry in his diary for the next three days.
The Fish House Punch is a fairly typical punch formula of rum, brandy, lemon juice, sugar and water (or tea). It differs from others in the addition of peach brandy – although some claim this was a later addition – which can be a little problematic. At least is was for me as the peach liqueurs available to me had little sign of any actual peach content and far too much sugar. While it may be controversial I’ve found subbing apricot brandy to be perfectly satisfactory should you find yourself in a similar situation. If you can get you hands on some proper peach brandy by all means go for it. Unsurprisingly for such an old drink there is some divergence in recipes likely because this actually changed over time but my one is fairly typical. Because it is made in quantity I’ve composed it in (gasp!) metric.
These days you can find the Fish House Punch served as an individual drink but we’re going to make it in bulk, as it was designed. What follows is a quantity for 10-15 servings so scale that up as required and divide by 10 for a single, but large, drink. But first you need to know about an optional extra:
Extra credit – oleo saccharum.
If you want to take you punch to the next level substitute the sugar syrup for oleo saccharum. Wait. What? Oh, my bad: Oleo saccharum is a very cool ingredient that is much easier to produce than it sounds. Simply reserve all the lemon husks that are left over from making the juice and cut them into smaller chunks. Put these remains in a strong plastic bag (such as a freezer bag) and throw in a similarish mass of fine white sugar and give the whole lot a bit of a massage. What then happens over the course of 2 or 3 hours is that the remaining juice and oils from the lemon are sucked into the sugar creating a tasty lemon sugar. Giving it the odd extra massage helps the process. After a time the sugar will be yellow and much more like a grainy syrup. I usually proceed by adding a splash of water to the bag and giving it a mix before dumping the lot in a big bowl and mashing gently with a potato masher or large spoon. Finally simply strain out the solids and you’ll have a zingy citrus sugar syrup that really livens up a punch and indeed was commonly the sweetener of such in days of old. I’ve got to admit that my process is a little less than scientific and my quantities are somewhat ad hoc but if I ever come up something more formulaic I promise to come back and update this. Other recipes use only citrus peel but I’m perfectly happy with my quick ‘n’ dirty version.
Fish House Punch (Proof version).
600ml (20 oz) dark Jamaican rum such as Myers’s or Captain Morgan Dark*.
300ml (10 oz) VS cognac (eg Courvoisier).
400ml (13.5 oz) fresh lemon juice.
100ml (3.5 oz) peach or apricot brandy (see text).
300ml (10 oz) simple (1:1) syrup – or oleo saccharum**
700ml (23 oz) still or sparkling water – or alternatively and perhaps more authentically chilled black tea.
Mix the ingredients in advance of the party and cool in the fridge. One hour before the party add about 1kg (2lbs) of cubed ice. Serve in a large bowl or basin (don’t worry too much about the container as the original version was served out of the Christening font!). Garnish with lemon slices. Optionally also add a large block of ice containing sliced lemons – details below.
Toast those posh nutters who pretended to fish but instead mostly drank and ate at The Fish House.
Garnished ice block.
Take a clean plastic container or about 1000ml (1 quart) capacity and clean well. Put a little filtered water in the bottom and put in the freezer for a couple of hours. On the iced layer place a couple of lemon slices and let freeze. Add another water and let freeze. Add more lemon slices. Rinse (not literally!) and repeat until you have a nice block of ice with layers of lemons frozen inside it. Start this a few days before the party. When served, place the block in the punch bowl to keep the punch cold without over-diluting it.
*Or go nuts and add some Smith & Cross or Tiki Lovers Dark for extra kick and authenticity as these rums are more like those that would have been used in the 1700s.
**If you don’t have quite enough oleo saccharum just top up with a little more simple syrup. Because of the imprecisity of my OS method test the total mix for sweet/sour balance before serving.