The Jerry Thomas Experiment: Stank 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.

The recipe for Jerry Thomas’s “Ale Punch” is just one sentence long. This led us to assume it would be simple. We should know by now not to make assumptions when it comes to Jerry Thomas’s recipes.

A quart of mild ale, a glass of white wine, one of brandy, one of capillaire, the juice of a lemon, a roll of the peel pared thin, nutmeg grated on top, and a bit of toasted bread.

To get closest to the kind of beer Jerry Thomas might have drunk, we chose one from the oldest brewery in America: Yuengling’s Original Amber Lager. Being in New York City, where JT worked, we opted for a local wine: Long Island’s Channing Daughter’s Chardonnay. For the brandy, we opted for a Supercall staff favorite, Pierre Ferrand Premier Cru.

Next up, one glass of capillaire. We hadn’t encountered capillaire before, but the Bartenders Guide contains multitudes, including a recipe for capillaire. This is where our troubles began. But it would not be where they ended.

According to the guide, capillaire syrup is also known as maidenhair syrup. Some Googling told us that in its day, the syrup was used as a medicinal cure-all for everything from pectoral aching to hair loss.

And um, yeah. We’re just going to let JT do the talking here.

The best capillaire is found in America, and grows near ponds or running streams. The leaves are green, and grow double, the stalk long, and of the color of ripe plums. Be careful to obtain the genuine sort, whether foreign or native, whichever kind you require. Cut the capillaire into little pieces; then infuse them in boiling water, covering the pan over; add the sugar, and clarify with the whites of 4 eggs; if you are mixing in the above proportion boil to a “pearl,” then pour off through a strainer; when cool, add some orange-flower water; then bottle close. Ordinary syrup, with tincture of orange-flower in it is often sold for the genuine article.

Ponds and running streams being in short supply in lower Manhattan, we headed for Koreatown. Ferns are a common ingredient in Korean cuisine. Known as Gosari, or fern bracken, they are used for Bibimbap and in Banchan, a.k.a. the itty bitty appetizers that come out to whet your appetite for BBQ. The ferns we found were long, dark green and purple, veined and fat like earth worms. Piled onto each other in a heap on a plate they looked as if they were going to start squirming.

But as our syrup started to boil, we were the ones doing the squirming. Turns out boiling ferns smell like a rancid gym locker. Jerry doesn’t specify how long to boil them so we went as long as we could without provoking our officemates to homicide. Then we added sugar to make it a syrup along with egg whites, which cooked instantly, adding a white, stringy aspect to our jockstrap stew.

We let the whole mixture steep in a mason jar and once it was cool, strained it and added orange blossom water. Our Sirop de Capillaire was now fully weaponized. When we added a glass of the stuff to the beer, wine and brandy, the disturbance in the liquids wafted off a foul, nose-hair-curling stank. We were pretty sure we had ruined a perfectly good batch of beer-wine-brandy.

Now all that was left to add was the juice of one lemon, a lemon rind, fresh grated nutmeg and “a bit of toasted bread.” Bread. Was it supposed to be a garnish? A crisp piece hanging daintily from the side of the glass to be snacked on in between sips? We tried to convince ourselves this was the right interpretation, but couldn’t do it. Every way we read it, it seemed like JT wanted us to put the bread directly into the liquid. Maybe it was supposed to distract from the drink’s distinctly gnarly aroma.

A minute after our beautifully crisped pumpernickel toast hit the liquid, it was a soggy mess of clumps that looked like… well we won’t say what it looked like. Except to say that it looked like this:

But looks aren’t everything. Time for a taste. Several of us ladled punch into tea cups.  No turning back now.
The first impression was feet. Not clean ones. More like the feet Action Bronson describes in “Thug Love Story 2012.” To wit: “crusty feet like she hiking for days and live in the mountains.”

The ale flavor came through, along with a slick carbon smokiness redolent of wet, burnt toast. The orange blossom water did nothing to diminish the layered and deep nastiness we had created. Or maybe it did and the acrid flavors of nail polish remover and burning plastic bags would have been worse without it. To verify its nastiness, several staff members tasted our vile concoction. You can see the results below. Sorry Kevin.

Clearly something had gone terribly wrong here. A few days later, after a chance meeting with cocktail historian David Wondrich, we think we know what it was. We had made the mistake of thinking all ferns were created equal. Wondrich couldn’t conceal his laughter when we said we’d used Korean ferns. Then he graciously recommended we source actual Capillaire ferns, not Gosari next time. Thank you Mr. Wondrich. We’re not worthy.

The thing that still confounds us though is the toast. We just can’t see a way to make that palatable, no matter how good your fern syrup gets. Adding bread to a punch is like adding a sponge to a punch. It’s unsightly, gets in the way and makes it a sloppy, slimy affair all around.

Then again, things were different back then. Maybe bread was different too. Maybe it was hard and non-absorbent. Maybe bread used to be rocks! That would explain a lot.

But no. Bread is not rocks. And we are not Jerry Thomas. And so we clear our minds and start again with a new goal. One day, we will successfully garnish with rocks bread. Thanks for the reality check, JT.