America is a patchwork quilt... and stories are its stitching.
The oldest American secret you can drink... is still a secret
The terrific 1905 NYT article regarding the “oldest dining club in the world” was spot-on when it reported that the secret of the true Fish House Punch recipe has, amazingly, been kept for almost 200 years (at that point). A hundred additional years later, the status of that secret remains the same—i.e. kept.
Wayne Curtis—a contemporary cocktail authority whose writing I thoroughly enjoy—says the recipe to Fish House Punch is still “perhaps the most famous secret” in the world of spirits. And I agree.
But while most gurus concur that the recipe remains a secret, a handful of cocktail afficionados maintain that they have been exposed to the actual secret recipe. And I get asked about these claims a fair amount. So what do I think? I think if someone else also discovers the actual recipe... well, then, that’s wonderful! The discovery is itself a large part of the delight, and if someone else were to make it, I wouldn’t begrudge them the experience, one bit. In fact, I would probably seek them out so that I could provide them with a brisk high-five.
And yet, this begs the question: do I think anyone else actually has found it? Nope. And here’s why...
Claiming authentic FHP recipes is a bit of a pastime in certain circles
The 1905 NYT article itself identifies a somewhat amusing by-product phenomenon triggered by this mythological brew: counterfeit claims. “The recipe for the blending never has been revealed, although so-called Fish House punch has been served for years at dinners in different parts of the country. All these are imitations—some of them very good, but not one the real thing.”
The provenance for even the best claims is a tad shaky
The handful of gurus who believe they have been exposed to the actual Fish House Punch recipe provide authenticity arguments that too often fall under the rubric of historical he-said-she-said. They resemble slightly more elegant versions of “I encountered a guy who once knew a guy who claims to have known an older guy who was actually friends with a citizen of the State in Schuylkill and that guy gave it to the other guy who remembered it and gave it to the guy who knew my guy.” It is difficult to describe such arguments as iron-clad chains-of-title.
One of the most gifted cocktail historians, who suspects that he has had the recipe revealed to him, details the story of its apparent discovery. A woman provided him with an old article from the Philadelphia Telegraph. The Telegraph journalist claims that he had a recipe given to him, and that the provenance of that recipe is as follows: another person found it tucked inside the pages of a book on the history of the State in Schuylkill... and the book itself was in the library of a Philly bibliophile. It’s unclear why the journalist thinks that an artifact found bookmarked in a bibliophile’s tome makes it authentic, instead of just another hand-written notation derived from one of the many “imitations—some of them very good, but not one the real thing.” I guess my question is this: if I were to go to Harvard’s Widener library and read an old book on George Washington, and in between its pages I found a slip of paper with the words “George Washington” written on it in cursive, would I therefore conclude that the note held the actual signature of George Washington himself? To the present-day cocktail writer’s credit, he admits that trusting the provenance of this recipe is challenging, conceding that we must engage in a leap of faith, “if we are to believe" the alleged recipe.
The above reasons are why it’s clear to me that the secret is still a secret. And what allows it to remain that way? Why, the conveniently-placed red wax seal, below, of course.
Yours in the pursuit (and preservation) of America’s treasures,
FISH HOUSE PUNCH
A secret older than the United States