We Drank Fish Bladders: The Jerry Thomas Experiment No. 1

In 1862, Jerry Thomas published The Bartender’s Guide, the first book of cocktail recipes. Every week, we tackle one of his recipes.  Turns out they did things differently back then.

For our first attempt at a Thomas original, we took on recipe 27, a delectation he calls “Punch Jelly.” It’s essentially a 19th-century version of the Jell-O shot. Except, instead of using gelatin like a civilized human, the recipe calls for isinglass, aka fish bladders. More on that in a jiff.

Punch Jelly is a modification of recipe 26, “Punch à la Ford,” a beautiful, little bauble featuring lemons, sugar, water, Cognac and rum named for “the late General Ford, who for many years was the commanding engineer at Dover, kept a most hospitable board, and used to make punch on a large scale.” Hard to go wrong with that setup, we thought. This was before we added the fish bladders.

Thomas says to peel three dozen lemons(!) and place the peels in an “earthen vessel.” After trying for a full 10 seconds to source such a vessel, we decided that crude oil comes from the earth and plastic comes from crude oil, and thus, via the transitive property, our oversized plastic Cambro tub was indeed an earthen vessel. We are nothing if not authentic here at the Jerry Thomas Experiment.

Next the recipe instructed us to add two pounds of sugar to the peels to extract their essential oil. Today the resulting miracle goo is called oleo saccharum (thanks to David Wondrich’s near single-handed revival of the stuff in his legendary book, Punch). It’s a fairly miraculous process, during which, over the course of several hours (ours took three), the sugar pulls the oil from the peels and dissolves itself into a sort of primordial lemon ooze.

When it comes to stirring up the lemon peels, Thomas calls for the use of “an oar shaped piece of wood.” After an ill-fated attempt to boost an oar from a passing fisherman, we reread the passage and realized the piece of wood only needed to be oar-shaped. We then scoured lower Manhattan’s restaurant supply stores until we found the biggest, most nautical-looking wooden spoon that we could find.

The next instruction was to juice the lemons, reserve the juice, then pour boiling water over the spent lemon husks and let them soak. According to Thomas, when done properly, ”the pips were enveloped in thick mucilage, full of flavor.” Though this sounds disgusting, it smelled delicious.

After straining the brine into a bowl, we dissolved the oleo saccharum into it, slightly stressed about Thomas’s admonition to take great care not to “render the lemonade too watery.” Apparently, the late General Ford was clear that his punch be “rich of fruit, and of plenty of sweetness.” The last thing we needed at this point was to anger the dead.

With our lemonade “sherbet” (as Thomas called it) tasting richly of fruit, we were ready to add the booze. The formula given in the book calls for a pint of brandy and a pint of rum to every three quarts of sherbet. With the total volume of our lemonade just a hair over three quarts, we added a bit more than a pint of each spirit, then mixed it properly with our trusty oar/spoon/silent film prop.

Jerry Thomas’ go-to gelatinizing agent was isinglass, which is collagen derived from the gas bladders of fish (typically sturgeon). The fish use them to control their buoyancy. In today’s age of readily available gelatin from rendered mammal bones and skin (eat up, kids!), isinglass is mainly used for “fining” (de-hazing) beer. This makes it strangely hard to find isinglass outside specialty brewing shops, which were absent in striking distance of our lab. We refused to let a little hiccup like this impede our experiment, though. If we couldn’t find isinglass we would make our own.

There are many side benefits to having our offices within walking distance of Manhattan’s Chinatown, but the most obvious is ready access to dehydrated fish bladders. There are also many side benefits to boiling fish bladders in the office, including seeing your coworkers’ extremely entertaining faces as the air fills with the scent of a Chinatown fish store on a hot day. The aroma was sturdy, durable and, as it turns out, un-Febreze-able. And now everyone loves us here.

Smelling fish stink was one thing, but drinking it was another. We held our noses as we strained the crinkled, wet scraps of fish out of the terrifying liquid. We paused, reluctant to pollute our utterly pleasant punch with this weird fish juice. Then we remembered that drinking weird fish juice was the whole point of this project in the first place. We poured it in. Then we tasted it.

And we discovered something very important: Either General Ford was a cocktail genius, or he possessed some sort of magic power that persists to this day in his punches, which have the power to repel the foulest flavors. Somehow, our lovely lemon-Cognac-rum creation remained divine.

We poured the punch into molds and refrigerated them overnight.

We arrived in the morning full of excitement. Jell-O fish punch! Think of the possibilities! We opened the fridge like it was the Ark of the Covenant, fully prepared to have our faces melted off by the sheer awesome power of fish brandy. Alas, our faces would not melt that day. What we found were ribbons of what looked like white mucus floating on the surface of an entirely liquid punch. Something had gone very, very wrong.

Rather than reactivate our coworkers’ rage by boiling more fish bladders (this time it’s going to work guys, we’re using five times as much!), we brute forced it. After straining off the fish mucus and adding what one editor termed “a butt ton” of store bought gelatin, our long-suffering punch retired once again to the refrigerator for the night.

The next morning, we found success (yet somehow, our faces remained intact). Though slightly loose and wet, the gelatin had set up like a charm. We were the proud owners of a massive amount of 19th-century Jell-O shots. Which is when we encountered one final problem: This stuff is delicious. You want to eat it by the spoonful like it’s Jell-O, which is exactly what we did.

We would have done well to heed Thomas’ warning that “the strength of the punch is so artfully concealed by its admixture with the gelatine, that many persons, particularly of the softer sex, have been tempted to partake so plentifully of it as to render them somewhat unfit for waltzing or quadrilling after supper.” After a healthy serving of Jelly Punch, not a one of us could quadrille in the slightest, which made our cotillion a bit of a bust. Our first Jerry Thomas experiment, on the other hand, was a success, if a qualified, fish-bladdery one.