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2020 was a year that we’ll never forget, but we can try to forget it with this mind erasing cocktail. While researching America’s strange relationship with tea, I came across 18th Century punches — potent iced tea cocktails that were the Colonial-era equivalent to Jungle Juice (or Schuylkill Juice if you’re in Philly). The most famous among these punch recipes is the the Fish House Punch, named after a Philadelphia fishing club called the State in Schuylkill Fishing Corporation — AKA “Fish House”.
Some say that this powerful punch debuted at a Christmas party in 1848 in celebration of women being allowed into the Fish House for the first time. But recipes for similar punches can be traced back to the 16th Century to British sailors who brought these alcoholic beverages to the Americas from colonies in India. According to a 1992 article in The Philadelphia Inquirer, punch derives from the Hindu word “panch,” meaning “five,” which referred to the five ingredients used in punch — lime, sugar, spices, water, and arrack, an Indian and Southeast Asian liquor made from the fermented sap of coconut flowers (not to be confused with arak, the licorice-flavored liquor from the Middle East).
After about 200 years of heavy drinking in the American Colonies, arrack was replaced by other spirits found along the “Triangular Trade Route” like brandy, cognac, rum, and whiskey — in the case of Fish House Punch, they were wild enough to add ALL OF THEM.
This article from the Inquirer includes the original Fish House Punch recipe, courtesy of the Free Library of Philadelphia, as well as variations from the Union League and the Mutter Museum. It’s a cocktail famously served at holiday gatherings and New Year’s Eve parties, but its memory wiping potency seems like the perfect way to end 2020.
The proportions for these punches are massive — serving up to 40 people (30 citizens and 10 apprentices of the Fish House to be exact) — and require 1/2 pound cube of sugar, an entire bottle of Champagne as well as an entire pint of rum, to name a few ingredients. So, since we aren’t making giant bowls of punch for large New Year’s Eve gatherings this year, I’ve modified to recipe for one very strong serving. The original recipe calls for oranges, so to get the orange essence, I used Grand Marnier Liqueur in place of cognac because it’s made with cognac and orange liqueur.
The original recipe doesn’t call for tea, but a lot of Colonial-era punches did call for green tea, which was more popular at the time. Prior to World War II most iced tea recipes actually called for green tea, but when trade to Japan and China was cut off during the war, Americans shifted to drinking black tea almost exclusively. Green tea didn’t make a comeback in the United States until the 1960’s and 1970’s when there was a growing interest in green and herbal teas as a means of achieving overall health and wellness. The Mutter’s Museum version of Fish House Punch calls for “strong tea”, but considering the recipe is from around the 1950’s, they were most likely referring to black tea. If you want to go Colonial-style with your Fish House Punch, add some green tea but if you’re feeling more Mid-Century, opt for the black tea.
Fish House Punch For One
1 oz Champagne or sparkling white wine
1 oz rum
1 oz Grand Marnier Liqueur (or cognac)
1 oz peach brandy
1/4 oz lime juice
1/4 oz lemon juice
1/4 oz simple syrup
1 Maraschino cherry and 1 slice of lime for garnish
1oz Black or green tea (optional)
Add everything except for lime slice and cherry into a shaker. Shake well and strain into glass. Garnish with lime slice and cherry.
NOTE: Don’t go too wild with the champagne. When shaken it can get pretty fizzy. The 1 oz in this recipe doesn’t go too wild, but if you try to double up the recipe to make more Fish House Punch, add the champagne at the end.
Food is influenced by a multitude of forces. I often explore food’s cultural influences, but socio-economic and historical events can also have a deep impact on what we eat and how we eat it. For a recent story for KitchenAid Stories, I explored how the Great Depression changed the way we eat in the United States. Yes, it was an economically tumultuous time, but it led to technological advancements that helped make food more accessible, from the advent of refrigeration and frozen foods to the New Deal’s infrastructure programs that led to highways, making it easier to ship foods farther giving way to the big box grocery store. It was a fun story to work on and I hope you enjoy!
My recipe title Fish House Punch For One is a play on Dinner for One, a British comedy sketch from the 1920’s. It was filmed in the 1963 and airs every New Year’s Eve in Germany. Despite being in English, watching Dinner for One is a German New Year’s Eve tradition. The story is about a 90 year old woman hosting a birthday dinner with her four closest friends. The problem is, she has outlived all of her friends, so her butler has to not only serve her, but also stand in for all four of her friends. It’s a clever sketch that gives me a chuckle every year.
The Mountain Goats’ song “This Year” on loop until the clock strikes 12, because I think we can all sing in unison, “I am going to make it through this year, if it kills me.”
Kae Lani Palmisano is the Emmy® Award-Winning TV host of WHYY's Check, Please! Philly, a show that spotlights restaurants throughout the Philadelphia region. She also hosts and helps write Delishtory on WHYY, a digital series that dives into the history of foods we love. Kae Lani is also a food and travel writer who enjoys exploring the history and culture of cuisine.
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