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The Whistler's Monthly Book Club Celebrates Punch

By Roger Kamholz in Food on Jul 7, 2011 7:00PM

For last night's installment of the Whistler's monthly Book Club series, head bartender Paul McGee selected 10 recipes from renowned cocktail expert and historian David Wondrich's latest tome, Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl. While the evening's libations almost without exception registered as delightful, the age-old perils of punch-drinking were nonetheless made manifest by what we understood to be a first (and probably last) for the Logan Square cocktail bar: a Jell-O shot on the menu - and a muscular one even by the standards of the category. Which is certainly not to say we didn't excavate every last crumb of the thing. Dangers indeed.

McGee and his team had done some notable redecorating for Punch night. Gone were the row of barstools typically facing the long side of the Whistler's L-shaped bar. The countertop itself featured a number of punch bowls of various styles, each fronted with a handsomely printed sign announcing its name, provenance and key ingredients. Patrons could step right up and peruse the fragrant, colorful expanse. The Whistler, in saloon mode, if you will.

The communally consumed bowl of punch predates even the oldest classic cocktails. And the current revival that punch is enjoying - both a cause and effect of Wondrich's book - is a testament to the caliber of the recipes and the bartenders who created them. The recipe for the Schuylkill Fishing Club's Philadelphia Fish-House Punch, dated 1795, was the most ancient of the night's offerings. The Whistler's rendition included Jamaican rum, VSOP cognac, peach brandy and lemon.

But back to that Jell-O shot. It may come as a surprise that this oddity of current cocktaildom can actually trace its roots to hallowed ancestors. So-called jellied punches were quite popular back in the day, although it's not clear how and in what kind of vessel they were consumed. The Regents Punch No. 1, Jellied - which the Whistler rendered with cognac, Batavia Arrack, green tea, pineapple and sparkling wine - is an artifact of 1820. Instead of the customary one-two bludgeoning of astringent vodka and artificial fruit, this Jell-O shot was rich and spirit-forward - easily the best we can recall ever tasting.

Other standouts of the night were the Gin Punch a la Terrington (1868), a luscious blend of Old Tom Gin, Green Chartreuse, lemon and sparkling water, and the Chatham Artillery Punch (1885), which is a wonderful, bourbon-based gift to the world popularized by a Savannah, Georgia, militia formed in the late 1700s. This rounded, full-flavored punch plays bourbon off VSOP cognac, Barbados rum, lemon and Champagne.

The Whistler's Book Club series returns in August with a night of original tiki cocktails formulated by McGee himself (possibly accompanied by a printed 'zine to commemorate the evening). Then for September, McGee will revisit his library for a selection of cocktails from the 1949 book Esquire's Handbook for Hosts.

The Whistler is located at 2421 North Milwaukee Avenue.