Food & Drink

The Jerry Thomas Experiment: The Flaming Napalm Death Punch

Every week, we tackle the weirdest recipe we can find in Jerry Thomas’s Bartenders Guide. Turns out they did things differently back then.


Note: This recipe calls for fire. Do not make this at home. This should only be attempted by professionals and then only in the presence of proper fire safety equipment.

We thought Recipe 68, “Tea Punch,” would be easy. Pleasant even. A quaint spiked infusion or a proto-Long Island Iced Tea, who knows. Didn’t matter though. The first rule of the Bartender’s Guide is to never doubt the Bartender’s Guide (or Jerry Thomas for that matter).

Step one was making an “infusion of the best green tea,” with an “ounce of tea to a quart of boiling water.” No problem. We steeped it and put it aside.

The next step was to combine a short and sweet list of ingredients in a separate, heated punchbowl. None of these were overly strange or hard to procure: half a pint of rum (we went with Hamilton 151 Demerara), half a pint of “good brandy” (we used Pierre Ferrand Premier Cru), a quarter pound of raw lump sugar and the juice of one lemon. We added everything to our trusty metal punchbowl. So far so good.

The next instruction: “SET THESE ALIGHT.” Oh dear.

On this point, the merry barman offered this advice: “This punch may be made in a china bowl, but in that case the flame goes off more rapidly.” Apparently using a silver or metal bowl means the punch would “remain burning for some time.”

Excellent. Jerry Thomas was trying to kill us.

We procured the longest butane lighter we could find, dimmed the lights, took a deep breath and clicked it on. This was when we renamed Recipe 68.

It would no longer be known as Tea Punch. It shall henceforth be called The Flaming Napalm Death Punch.

The flame was gigantic and terrifying, and we are lucky we have any eyebrows left.

The instructions next called for the tea to be poured into the flaming booze. Jerry Thomas did not specify whether or not this should require burning off all your arm hair, so we went ahead and burned off all of our arm hair.

When the tea hit the flaming liquid in the bowl, the flames leapt up, stretching above of the bowl. We double checked that there was a fire extinguisher in the room. You don’t want to be the guy that burns down the office. Even for Jerry Thomas.

As the bowl and its contents were engulfed in hellfire, Jerry instructed us to mix the punch with a large metal ladle by lifting and pouring the flaming liquid. Hey, we’d already said goodbye to our arm hair, so why not?

Your first time hefting a ladleful of flame-dripping napalm death is a memorable one. A twist of the wrist produces a three-foot high column of fire between your ladle and the bowl. This bears repeating. We made a three-foot high column of liquid fire in our office.

After a few pours, we got more confident. It was as easy as riding a bike that’s on fire.

The longer the punch stayed ignited, the hotter the bowl, ladle and punch all became. The lump sugar caramelized under the flame and the unincorporated sugar adhered to the sides of the bowl, melting into a black, gooey ash. The flaming death punch stayed lit for more than 10 minutes with no sign of wavering. It was time to serve.

The book admonished the maker to serve the punch while still flaming. So we poured the molten liquid into metal Julep tins (JT called for “glasses,” but we didn’t want to risk a fiery crack-up from the intense heat). To our relief, when separated from the punchbowl, the individual servings quickly lost their flame. But our punch was still burning, and Jerry didn’t leave any instructions for putting it out.

Finally, the safest way we could conceive was to cover the bowl with a flat, metal baking sheet, depriving the fire of oxygen and snuffing it out. It was time to taste.

Though the punch was piping hot, we got a few gulps down. The drink tasted like liquified rock candy mixed with sugar crack, bolstered by a wallop of overproof rum and a long warm finish of caramelized baking spices.  

Sure, a quarter pound of raw sugar may seem like overkill for 16 ounces of alcohol and one lemon. But we are not ones for half measures. Still, we could feel our teeth rotting over the course of a single mugful.

Even under the icy permafrost of our office’s overachieving air conditioning system, the drink’s scalding temperature was too much heat. We suggest you reserve this bad mother for the coldest chapters of winter. Unless you need to scare away your neighbors, relatives or in-laws. We’ve done some weird stuff at the Jerry Thomas Experiment, but this was the first time we were genuinely scared we might incinerate our office.

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