Philadelphia’s Fish House Punch

When we opened the Spotted Owl in late 2014, we wanted to have at least one “punch bowl” on our menu. The idea of a shared cocktail experience appealed to our notion of a true public house, where people could come together and find their shared humanity through drink and revelry.

We chose Philadelphia Fish House Punch as our inaugural punch bowl at the Owl for two reasons. First, because it’s quite possibly the oldest surviving colonial American beverage. It was first written about in 1744, and is said to have been invented some two decades before that. Second, because in the middle of the 20th century it was reborn as a consummate holiday tradition, just behind eggnog and fruitcake as the mainstay of any suburban Christmastime.

I knew that first bit, about how Philadelphia Fish House Punch was born at the State in Schuylkill, the first rod and club in the American colonies. I knew about how those in the State of Schuylkill considered themselves citizens of a colony separate from Pennsylvania, and as such, elected each other to offices such as governor, lieutenant governor, sheriff, and coroner. I knew about how George Washington himself was a member of the club, and that the punch became his favorite drink. He was later known, at the Fraunces Tavern in New York City, to have made 13 toasts with it, one for each of the colonies. And I knew about how the Philadelphia Fish House punch bowl doubled as a baptismal font for the infant sons of Schuylkill’s “citizens.”

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It is difficult to imagine a beverage that better represents the place and time of its origin than Philadelphia Fish House Punch. It is a combination, traditionally, of cognac from Europe, Jamaican rum, American peach brandy, lemon juice, oleo saccharum of lemon (itself a combination of sugar and lemon oils), and black tea. Cognac was the most stable European finery available in the colonies. Jamaican rum found its way to the northern colonies of the New World because of the slave trade. Fruit brandies, mostly apple and peach, were already the homegrown liquor of choice to warm those chilly colonial winters. And black tea? Well, black tea was somewhat important to our little revolution.

Eighteenth-century recipes for Philadelphia Fish House Punch are delicious, if a bit brutish. We took some liberties with our recipe at the Owl, mostly because we can’t get a real peach brandy in Ohio. So we subbed out peach brandy for apricot brandy, modified the proportions a little bit, and left out the black tea (as a general rule, we don’t like to mix our uppers with our downers, so we use pure water instead). When we put it on the list, we half-expected it to be more of a symbol than a staple—it’s difficult to get Clevelanders to share a bottle of wine, much less a punch bowl. I reckon it’s because we tend to think of ourselves as rugged individualists, blessed by our Creator with the right to pick our own damn glass of wine. But we wanted the Owl to have certain direct connections to the history of the American dram, and Philadelphia Fish House Punch seemed like as good a symbolic tipple as any.

And so, for the first few weeks we were open, the punch mostly just sat, mellowing with flavor. But about a month after our grand opening, a guy named Fred walked in for happy hour, and all but dropped his glass of water when he saw Philadelphia Fish House Punch on our menu. He called me over, introduced himself, and said, “I’ve never seen Philadelphia Fish House Punch anywhere but at my grandmother’s house, growing up! I thought she had made it up!”

I laughed and gave the spiel you see above, thinking that I was providing him with a full account of the punch’s rich history. Little did I know, Fred had just as much to teach me as I had to teach him. At the end of that first visit, he told me he’d try to find his grandmother’s recipe. So I gave him my business card and he went on his way, pleasantly tipsy. I thought no more of it until a week later, I received an email from Fred, and it read like this:

Dear Will,

As promised, attached is the family Fish House Punch recipe that was served every Thanksgiving and Christmas at my grandmothers. It inevitably resulted in the following:

My mother and her sisters getting tipsy and going upstairs to nap in their childhood rooms after dinner;

The ladies awakening an hour later and setting off on a long walk around the block to sober up;

Children of all ages having a few cups of the punch;

The bowl going dry about the same time that the last of the ice melted.

Note this was in the pre-metric days here in the US—and I think we were dealing in quarts for this recipe rather than 4/5 quarts—but that isn’t really clear to me. See you next Tuesday with a larger group to be introduced to this wonderful drink.

Attached to the email was a photo of a piece of notebook paper, on which was written, in the most grandmotherly handwriting imaginable, a recipe for Fish House Punch. If I thought the Owl’s recipe had taken undue liberties, my fears were assuaged by this version. Her recipe included bourbon, orange juice, and grape juice, with green tea instead of black, on top of the traditional rum, cognac, and peach brandy. I understood immediately why the ladies of the house needed a lap around the block to clear their heads.

I responded to Fred’s email with a short reply, telling him that stories like his are precisely why I wanted to build a bar to begin with, and I thanked him for the insight into his family’s traditions. To which he responded promising to bring me the cookbook it was published in, High Hampton Hospitality.

Amateur cocktail historian such that I am, I became immediately fascinated by High Hampton Hospitality, which was published (spiral-bound, at that) in 1970 by the High Hampton Inn. It is a collection of recipes for drinks, hors d’oeuvres, and dinners from the legendary North Carolina social club, but it’s also a compilation of stories from its quirky hostesses, mostly focused on the gentlemen of the Hampton family who founded it.

After further research, and on subsequent visits from more customers with rich memories of Philadelphia Fish House Punch being served at the holidays in their family homes, the plot thickened—Philadelphia Fish House Punch’s 20th-century resurgence did not originate in 1970 at the High Hampton Inn, that most Confederate counterpart to the State in Schuylkill, but rather 30 years earlier and in the dark heart of American tippling, New York City.

It was Charles H. Baker himself, the king of all liquor writers who, in his 1939 tome, A Gentleman’s Companion (Around the World with Jigger, Beaker, and Flask), asserts Philadelphia Fish House Punch as “a recipe for a punch so superb and so deceitful that it has many rival claimants.”

That recipe (or something like it) was rewritten in 1948 by Lawton Mackall in his restaurant guide, Knife and Fork, and from there it was picked up by the Gourmet magazine.

Gourmet published various recipes for Philadelphia Fish House Punch in the proceeding 30 years. I assume the recipes changed to account for shifting tastes and trends in liquor, which is probably how bourbon found its way into the High Hampton version that Fred’s grandmother served. No other periodical has had greater influence over the dinner tables of middle-class American homes than Gourmet. That’s why so many of my customers have such intense sense-memories associated with it, but little to no knowledge of Philadelphia Fish House Punch’s rich colonial pedigree.

To serve it at the Spotted Owl is an honor because it connects our little bar, as John Edwards would say, with two Americas. One belongs to George Washington, and the other belongs to Fred’s Grandmother.