Punch Rivals

Chicago vs: Boston: A Cocktail Throwdown for the Ages

Cohasset Punch was created to prove the Windy City’s bartending supremacy over Beantown.

If you’re a city dweller, the First Rule of Summer is simple: Get Out. Not just out of the house, but out of town entirely. Cities are big, busy places with lots to do, but in the summer they’re also hot and smelly and crowded and smelly. (I know I said smelly twice; it had to be said twice.)

If you’re rich or otherwise fortunate, you have a country house to go to, a bare-bones sort of place stuffed with your old furniture, random bits of country kitsch that your spouse won’t allow in your real house, gap-toothed jigsaw puzzles, wobbly chairs, pieces of things you can’t identify, and all of your less-fortunate friends, who have come to make sure you don’t forget about the joys of city living.

William H. Crane was one of the fortunate ones—indeed, very fortunate: his “fishing box,” as he called it, in Cohasset, Massachusetts, sat right on the water in the heart of town, on a big, block-square lawn set off from the street by a thick stone wall. The broadly-verandahed cottage had 24 rooms, wide staircases, bookshelves full of first editions and if the furniture was old that’s because it was antique. Plus, if you liked to sail there were yachts. In the plural.

If Crane had simoleons to spare, he earned them the hard way, wringing them out of audiences one cheesy song or laugh line at a time. He was a comic actor, one of the most successful in America. To make the big bucks then, you had to get yourself in front of the people. That meant touring. One time in the early 1890s, he found himself at Williams & Newman’s saloon in the part of the Chicago Loop where all the theaters were. It was no coincidence: all the actors hung out at Williams & Newman’s. Louis Williams was a fine host and Tom Newman a keen mixologist. Well, Crane and Williams got to talking and things ended up with Crane inviting Williams to drop in at Cohasset for a few weeks—time moved more slowly then—when he wanted a change of scenery.

It being summer, Williams obeyed the First Rule and threw his striped bathing ensemble, moustache wax, button hook, sock garters and whatnot into a carpetbag and grabbed the first thing smoking out of Chicago. Upon arriving in Cohasset, he found a congenial company of sporting individuals there, tucked in among the bookcases and stairways, and set to loafing about and whatever else you do when it’s summer and your partner’s back home minding the saloon and you’re not.

“After several days fishing and yachting,” Bonfort’s Wine and Spirit Circular wrote in 1902, “Mr. Crane and Mr. Williams decided to take a sun bath on the porch of Mr. Crane’s residence, and included in the party were a number of well-known New Englanders.” The conversation flea-jumped around for a while and then they hit on the topic of Punch, specifically “the superiority of the New England punches” (Boston, just up the coast from Cohasset, prided itself on its Rum Punch, it being something of a signature drink for the city even though its constituent parts were simply rum and lemonade).

Williams didn’t much care for this line of palaver. He might have said something to that effect. In any case, as Bonfort’s reported, “he wired his partner…to put together a mixed drink that should surpass anything ever before imbibed by any living soul,” on penalty of his reputation as a mixologist.

Back home in Chicago, Tom Newman scratched his head a couple of times and then started pulling bottles. The next day, a little, sloshing keg was dropped off at the freight office—express, please.

You know what happened next. The keg arrived, the bung was extracted and glasses were filled. And refilled. Eventually, a verdict was reached: Tom Newman was “the king of blenders.”

When Williams got back to Chicago, he and Newman got to work promoting this “Cohasset Punch.” They sold it in the bar, they bottled it, they took out ads. Before long, it had become Chicago’s answer to Hub Punch, a bottled rum-brandy-citrus affair with broad national distribution sold by the C. H. Graves company—a Boston firm, naturally.

When Williams and Newman retired, some 15 years later, they sold the Cohasset Punch concession. The new owners kept it going, on and off, until the building that housed their saloon, with its iconic lighthouse sign proclaiming the drink’s name in neon, was sold for development in 1986.

Newman’s formula was a simple one: half a lemon, muddled with simple syrup and finished with Medford rum (made just outside of Boston), Italian vermouth and a dash of orange bitters, served up with—and here’s the kicker—a slice of brandied peach.

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Now, brandied peaches aren’t such a thing anymore, but they used to be, back when people had no problem canning their own fruit. Originally, the “brandy” was actually peach brandy, but once that got scarce regular brandy worked fine—simply peel the peaches, scald them in syrup, pit them, cut them in slices, and jar them up with booze. Easy, right?

Simple or not, you can see what made those gents on Crane’s verandah go for Newman’s formula: maybe it’s the peach, but it has a rare succulence that just makes you want more. Well done, Chicago.

Cohasset Punch

Ingredients:

1.5 oz aged, mellow Rum, such as Angostura 1919, Appleton V/X or, if you can find it, Old Ipswich or Bully Boy (both from Boston)

1.5 oz Italian vermouth (red), such as Cocchi Vermouth di Torino

2 dashes Orange bitters

half a Lemon, cut in quarters

1 tsp Rich simple syrup (2 parts Demerara or raw sugar to 1 part water)

1 slice Brandied peach*

Glass: Coupe

Directions:

Muddle the lemon with syrup in a mixing glass. Add the rest of the ingredients, except the brandied peach slice and fill with ice. Stir well (they always stirred these at Williams & Newman’s) and strain into chilled cocktail coupe with a slice of brandied peach in it.

Brandied Sliced Peaches (the hard way)*

Ingredients:

6 peaches, peeled

3 cups Sugar

1.5 cups Water

3 cup brandy or peach brandy

4.5 oz Ferrand Dry Orange Curaçao

Directions:

Set aside the peaches and cover them with a wet cloth to prevent browning. Bring the sugar and water to a boil and then simmer for a couple of minutes. Add the peaches and cook for 5 minutes. Remove the peaches and let cool. Reduce the syrup until it thickens (say, by a third). Cut each peach into 8 slices, discarding the pit. Put the peach slices into 1-pint Mason jars (you’ll need two or three). Add 1 cup of brandy (or peach brandy, the real kind distilled from peaches) and 1.5 ounces of Curaçao to each jar. Fill the rest of the way with syrup, seal, shake gently to mix the liquid, and let sit for at least 1 week. Keep your jars refrigerated.

If you’re in a rush you can use one large can of sliced peaches in syrup, instead of cooking down fresh ones and creating a syrup; just make sure to replace most of the syrup with booze. An added bonus is that your brandied peaches will be ready in just a couple of days instead of a week.