We just celebrated Independence Day in the US, and this year it occurred to me how fortuitous it is that the Founders did not do their treasonous work in the dark and cold of a winter evening.

Though it was surely the farthest thing from their minds as they abandoned appeasement and pledged their lives and fortunes on that stifling July day, I cannot imagine that the event now typically celebrated with picnics, beaches and barbeques, coolers of iced beer, and reunions and rocketry would be commemorated by much more than a few urban fireworks displays on your typical iced-up January evening.

As  the picnics wore down, and the rocketry and firecrackers quieted, I got to thinking that the Tom Collinses and other tall drinks I had been sipping through that long afternoon and evening may not have been all that far from the refreshments that John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson, and others of the Continental Congress may have searched out when their work was done on that stifling July 4 in 1776, as they ratified the final edits of America’s Declaration of Independence and cemented their status as enemies of the Empire.

I’ve yet to find mention of what the Founders really did after leaving Independence Hall, but at such an auspicious moment on a hot Philadelphia summer day, it stands to reason that some, at least, adjourned to their local clubs or taverns and raised a cold glass in relief, celebration, and perhaps trepidation.

They may have indulged some good New England ale, perhaps. But very likely, it would have been Punch.

Gin, rum, or brandy, Punch was the preeminent social drink of the 18th Century. The Founders lived at the zenith of the age of Punch, and an elegant age it was. What they would have been drinking was the flavorful and potent precursor of what we know today as the cocktail.

One of the best punches of the era, one that many of the Founders may have known, was the Philadelphia Fish House Punch. This particular Punch was invented by a Philadelphia rod and gun club called the Schuylkill Fishing Club. They seem to have been an amusing group, structuring their club along the lines of colonial, and later state, government. (According to David Wondrich, they even went so far as to elect a coroner, which sort of gives one pause.) Their goal seems to have been to provide a getaway for themselves where they could smoke, fish, hunt and drink to their hearts’ content, and by all accounts, they succeeded.

There are various stories of Fish House Punch’s origin. One story suggests it first appeared in 1732, with the forming of the club; another, that it was formulated as refreshment for a 1740 Christmas party, in order to enliven the ladies.

Fish House Punch, photo copyright © 2012 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
Philadelphia Fish House Punch

But the formula was kept secret, or at least not publicized, so it wasn’t until Jerry Thomas published a version of it in his Bar-Tenders Guide more than 125 years later that it came to be generally known. The predictable result is that we have many recipes competing for authenticity. Differing mainly in proportion and technique, they agree generally that Fish House Punch includes rum, cognac, peach brandy, lemon juice, sugar and water.

And most recipes, especially the early ones, are designed for mixing Punch in what Wondrich refers to as “large bore” proportions—Punch was a social drink, and was mixed up gallons at a time, and usually presented in elegant “flowing bowls” that often became the locus of conversation at social events.

I suspect that few of us these days have punch bowls; fortunately, these recipes can be cut down to “small bore,” single serving portions. My favorite version is based on a single-serving recipe from Wayne Curtis’s absolutely delightful history, And a Bottle of Rum (2006.)

Philadelphia Fish House Punch

  • 2 oz Jamaica rum (Smith and Cross)
  • 1 oz Cognac (Remy VSOP)
  • 1 oz Peach Brandy (Mathilde Liqueur Pêche)
  • 1 oz Demerara syrup
  • 1 oz lemon juice
  • water (or club soda)
  • sliced peaches or lemon for garnish

Mix all ingredients and serve over ice. Top up with the water or club soda. Optionally garnish with lemon or fresh peach slices.

As you can see, the distance from a great Punch to the whiskey sour, the Daiquiri, or the Tom Collins is vanishingly small. One difference from the modern cocktail may be that Punch starts with a considerable load of spirits, which is offset by the addition of an even more considerable load of water (often in the form of ice.) Punch is meant to be diluted, and drunk slowly, the ice melting and conversation flowing. That social psychology may be the other difference between Punch its “small bore” descendants—it is meant to be, as they say, a social lubricant, enjoyed over time, as opposed to an individual serving tossed back so we can go on to the next thing. (In fact, the “individual” recipe as presented here is quite potent; it can stand a great deal of ice melt, and is arguably Punch for two, which seems a particularly pleasant and civilized idea. You can always make more.)

Which of course was the idea behind the “flowing bowl.” The ice would melt as the afternoon progressed, diluting the Punch so you could keep drinking and remain lucid. Or in the case of the Schuylkill Fishing Club, keep drinking and be able to smoke, fish, and shoot all afternoon. (Perhaps that coroner makes sense after all.)

As for the formula itself, I have seen Fish House Punch recipes that call for two parts Cognac to one part rum, instead of the other way around; that works, and is a nice drink, but the rum version has a bit more character and oomph, and I recommend you try it rum-heavy first.

Fish House Punch (detail), photo copyright © 2012 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.Peach brandy is a conundrum. “Real” peach brandy didn’t survive Prohibition, at least not in the U.S. There are some respectable peach liquours on the market, but they tend to be relatively dry and quite lightly flavored compared to the brandy that was probably available at Shuylkill, and to Jerry Thomas. The recipe here calls for a full ounce just to get some peach flavor going in the drink; originally, it would only have been a teaspoon or less.

In my opinion, anything other than S&C leaves the punch lifeless and unremarkable. Jamaican rum as a class is strongly flavored, and the Smith and Cross is an excellent choice for this drink because the flavors will hold up even after your ice has melted away to nothing. It was a revelation to me that it could stand up to such extensive dilution. Light rums will not survive dilution as well; sweet, or spiced rums aren’t a good match either. I think it’s the big-flavor funkiness of the S&C that makes it work well in the Punch world, but if that’s not to your liking, then Myers’s will make a good Jamaican substitute—with perhaps a bit less lemon, and a bit less dilution.

As for the soda, it’s not totally inauthentic—some Punch recipes included Champagne from time to time—but the original Fish House Punch would have been diluted with water, specifically with great blocks of ice in the punch bowls. I prefer a combination—the ice will melt in its own good time, but I enjoy the extra brightness that a splash of soda brings to the glass.

I owe my interest in Punch to Wondrich; I had never given it much thought, and certainly had known nothing about its potent, delicious, sociable, and elegant character until I read his 2010 book Punch. Imagine Fish House Punch made with lime, and Daiquiri is in easy reach. Or made with gin, and it’s very nearly the Tom Collins. This is a great drink, the proto cocktail, and a delightful way to lighten your thoughts whether you’ve spent the day pledging your future and your life, or if you’re just waiting for the fireworks to start.

Extra credit: If you enjoy Punch, I recommend David Wondrich’s Imbibe! (2007) and Punch (2010); and, as mentioned above, Wayne Curtis’s And a Bottle of Rum (2006.)