This story was originally published Dec. 23, 1992.
There are seemingly infinite varieties of punch to serve during the holidays, but there is only one Philadelphia Fish House Punch.
Or is there?
Every family, it seems, has its own recipe, each reputed to be the original. Many recipe books have at least one version purported to be authentic. Even the Free Library of Philadelphia’s central branch reference desk has a half-dozen versions to choose from.
Fish House Punch is a relatively basic alcoholic party concoction, but it has a special history. Named for the venerable and exclusive local gentleman’s club – the State in Schuylkill, popularly known as the “Fish House” – that created it, it appears to have undergone more transmutations than Jove.
It can be traced back to 1732 when the Quaker predecessors of the State in Schuylkill established their own version of an independent sovereignty, the Colony in Schuylkill (later re-organized as a “state”), devoted exclusively to the pleasures of fishing, eating and drinking.
Punch was a logical beverage of choice for the gentlemen of the Fish House – the drink was extremely popular in all of the Colonies. The festive libation was introduced to the Americas during the 16th century by British sailors who carried the recipe for the alcoholic beverage from the colonies in India.
The word punch was not coined to describe a powerful, intoxicating effect, but originally was derived from the Hindu word panch, which means “five,” indicating the number of ingredients used – lime, sugar, spices, water and a fermented sap called arrack. Aside from arrack, the other ingredients remain the basic foundation for most punches.
The colonists substituted brandy or the newly discovered cane-sugar rum from the West Indies for arrack. Rum punches became especially popular in the Colonies during the 18th century, in large measure because rum was exempt from the heavy British taxes.
At every colonial social gathering, the enormous bowl was a sign of hospitality, and hostesses of the day argued constantly as to which recipe made the perfect punch. Warm milk punch was often prescribed for women’s delicate natures and was a Christmas Day specialty for family gatherings.
Among the colonists, punch was regarded as medicinal, as this early American ditty proclaims:
Punch cures the Gout, the Cholic and the Phtisic,
And it is to all men the very best Physic.
Until this century, the recipe for Fish House Punch was a closely guarded secret, known only to members. It gained legendary status as privileged guests spread word of its strength.
In 1787, George Washington was an honored guest at the club and no doubt sampled the punch. After he made an entry in his diary that he was en route to dine at the Fish House, his diary remains suspiciously blank for the next three days.
During the Revolution, the club was reorganized as the State in Schuylkill. Perhaps because it never formally adopted the United States Constitution, the self-styled “state” was not inhibited by Prohibition as its citizens continued to imbibe their ceremonial punch.
Its citizens – which never exceed 30 – include a governor, three counselors, a treasurer, a secretary of state, a sheriff and a coroner (“to hold an inquest upon any suspected meat, fish or other provisions”). Together with the apprentices (not to exceed 10), they still uphold the traditions and ”the pleasant fiction,” as the present governor describes it, of the state’s political sovereignty.
Although they no longer fish in the Schuylkill (indeed, their headquarters has moved to Andalusia along the banks of the Delaware River), they meet 13 times a year on “fishing days” from May to October to jointly prepare elaborate lunches and dinners.
Wearing their requisite white aprons and straw Mandarin boater hats, they mix the punch in the early morning in a nine-gallon porcelain bowl, decorated with the club’s perch emblem. The bowl was specially made in China and delivered by Capt. Charles Ross, a former governor, in 1812.
By mid-afternoon, members may taste the punch to see if it is properly seasoned. At dinner, the punch is ready and toasts are made to George Washington and former Gov. Samuel Morris, who led the First Troop, Philadelphia City Cavalry.
The recipe for Fish House Punch was not made public until 1900. That has not done away with numerous versions and variations that claim to be the original.
Even the club itself has changed the recipe over the years. A 1873 manuscript by then-governor William Camac calls for five pounds of sugar. Modern tastes have reduced its sweetness considerably.
The basic formula for Fish House Punch, according to Alfred Putnam, the current governor of the State in Schuylkill, is “two parts water, one part citrus juice, one part brandy, two parts rum and sugar to taste. A glass of peach brandy acts as a catalyst to bring all the flavors together in harmony. ”
What makes the genuine punch enjoyed by the State in Schuylkill unique? ”History and tradition are the secret ingredients for real Fish House Punch ,” observes citizen John Chew.
Here is the recipe for Fish House Punch as it is made today by the State in Schuylkill.
FISH HOUSE PUNCH
1 quart water
1/2 pound sugar
3 cups of lemon juice or a combination of lemon and lime juice.
2 fifths rum (a darker light rum like Baccardi Amber is fine, or a mixture of about 5 cups light rum with 1 cup dark rum)
1 fifth brandy (California brandy is acceptable)
1 cup cordial (peach brandy is traditional; triple sec or cointreau may be used)
1 fifth water, frozen into a block of ice.
To “build” the punch, dissolve the sugar in water. Add the rest of the ingredients in the order listed, and let it “come together” for 3 to 4 hours. How fast the ice melts determines the potency of the brew. Use less water in summer and more in the winter to counteract the temperature, advises Putnam.
Makes approximately five quarts (enough to serve 30 citizens and 10 apprentices).
Here are some variations of Fish House Punch. They appear almost as originally presented, and in some cases are less than exacting. Keep in mind that most of the ingredients can be considered as “to taste. ”
Also, for smaller gatherings, ingredients can be cut proportionately. Use the recipes as ideas for building your own Fish House Punch . The first is from the Free Library’s curio file.
PHILADELPHIA FISH HOUSE PUNCH
1 block (10 pounds) of ice
1/2 pound cube sugar
1 cup apricot brandy
1 quart club soda
1 bottle Champagne or white wine
1 pint rum
Put block of ice in large punch bowl, about three hours before serving punch. Peel fruits and put peelings in bowl. Squeeze fruit; strain and add to bowl. Add sugar (it is meant to melt slowly; that’s why cube sugar is used). Add brandy, club soda and Champagne. Stir mixture about every half-hour.
Just before serving, add rum. Makes approximately 40 punch cups.
This recipe is from Peter Bohlender, the Philadelphia Union League’s director of food and beverage. It’s exactly as made for the league’s New Year’s Day party. Serve with discretion, he advises.
PHILADELPHIA UNION LEAGUE’S FISH HOUSE PUNCH
1 fifth peach brandy
1/2 fifth Myers rum
5 fifths rye whisky
3 cups fresh lemon juice
1/2 quart simple syrup
5 quarts club soda
5 fifths Champagne
Put all ingredients in a pot in the order listed, along with a large chunk of ice. Let chill until very cold. Makes five gallons.
This family recipe dates from 1950 and was provided by Gretchen Worden, director of the Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Worden said she’s tried this recipe with friends, and they are still friends.
FISH HOUSE PUNCH
Juice of four dozen lemons
1 1/2 pounds of granulated sugar
1 pint Curacao
1 pint Jamaica rum
1 pint Bendictine
1 quart peach brandy
4 quarts bourbon
1 pint strong cold regular tea
Put all ingredients in a 3-gallon jug and shake well. Set the cork lightly on the opening to keep dust out. (No use plugging a cork in tight; it will just blow out. ) Park jug in a cool place and give it a rassle (shaking) once a day for at least 3 weeks – 2 months is better. Makes approximately 2 gallons.