For as long as humans have engaged in military endeavors, they’ve also been known to bend the old elbow. In fact, the word “libation” is derived from the Greek spondai, which means “treaty.” After all, squeaky peace negotiations often required a little lubricant. Of course, we’ve all heard about soldiers having a belt before battle, “Dutch Courage,” and all that, and history tells us of the sometimes nefarious use of alcohol to help encourage recruiting efforts. Point in fact, during the American Revolution, Tun Tavern in Philadelphia served as the first recruiting post for U.S. Marines.
It’s a topic of special interest to me, since it combines my two careers. I’m a cocktail and spirits writer as well as a Trademark Counsel for the U.S. Marine Corps.
Speaking of which, the Corps celebrates its 242nd birthday today, which is conveniently adjacent to Veterans Day. So if you’re planning a gathering to toast current or former Marines, here are a few of my favorite Leatherneck-centric libations to try.
Professor Francesco Fanciulli was the director of the U.S. Marine Band in the 1890s, but he found himself in the shadow of his illustrious predecessor, the “March King,” John Philip Sousa. Fanciulli’s Marine career ended rather abruptly during the 1897 Memorial Day parade. It seems a Lt. Draper, according to contemporary newspaper articles, wanted Fanciulli and the Marine Band to play “music with swing to it,” namely, a bouncy little Sousa number called “El Capitan.” Reportedly Fanciulli told Draper to pound sand, “he would play what he saw fit,” namely, his own songs. From personal experience, I know it’s a dangerous game for a civilian to tell a Marine to step off. Anyway, Draper firmly replied, “You’ll play what I order you to play.” Fanciulli refused. So, “the lieutenant ordered him to return at once to the marine barracks and report himself under arrest to the officer in charge.” So there, publically disgraced in front of the famed Willard Hotel, I rather suspect Fanciulli could have used one of his eponymous drinks. He was later court martialed, but he appealed to the assistant secretary of the Navy, a bespectacled fellow named Teddy Roosevelt, and the verdict was overturned. Bully!
Guam Marine Punch
This classic punch was invented in 1928 by Marine Major General Wilbur S. “Bigfoot” Brown (so named for his size 14 boots), while stationed in Nicaragua. A civil war was underway, and a detachment of Marines was sent to restore order and oversee elections. While only a 2d lieutenant, Brown sought to create a mild-looking, “sneaky” punch to serve on Independence Day. “He hit upon just such a concoction, and after serving it to both major political factions in Nicaragua, almost saw hostilities start all over again,” wrote N.E. Beveridge in his 1968 book, Cups of Valor. So much for American diplomacy! Five years later, now stationed in Guam, Brown resurrected the recipe to honor the Marine Corps’ birthday. The punch was “so successful that the commanding officer nearly got transferred in the aftermath.”
Fish House Punch
Historic Fish House Punch goes back to a Philadelphia sporting club on the banks of the Schuylkill River, circa 1732. In the early 1800s it was enjoyed by Marines stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, thus becoming a traditional part of many Marine celebrations. Beginning in World War II, Lt. Gen. Vincent “Brute” Krulak embraced the drink. Standing only 5-foot-5, Krulak was the epitome of the punching-above-his-weight, scrappy bulldog Marine. As a boy, his father told him, “You will be short, and you will be bald. But you don’t have to be fat.” From 1940 until his death in 2008 (at the ripe old age of 95), Fish House Punch was a fixture at Krulak’s birthday celebrations. His biographer, Robert Coram, described this punch as “an insidious drink that, after two glasses, causes a peculiar numbness around the ears. After three glasses, a man believes he is the smartest person God ever created.” Enjoy your newfound intelligence responsibly!
By late spring of 1942, the Japanese controlled most of the Western Pacific theatre. In August, the Allies launched the first-ever offensive in the South Pacific with the landing of 11,000 Marines on Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands. The way the Marines tell it, the Navy dropped them off, then got the hell out, leaving the Leathernecks to fend for themselves. Well, at least Adm. Chester Nimitz was kind enough to leave them a few cases of Old Crow Bourbon; the daily ration worked out to be about 2 to 4 ounces per Marine per day. Resourceful Marines (as if there’s any other kind) soon learned to mix their whiskey with unsweetened grapefruit juice and, when they could get it, ice, which they’d “liberate” from the Japanese’s icehouses or their own mess hall. For years thereafter, Marine veterans of Guadalcanal would raise glasses of this cocktail to commemorate their heroic campaign.
This drink’s creator has become something of a hero of mine. Marine Capt. Frank Farrell not only fought on Guadalcanal, but also received a Silver Star for valor serving as an Office of Strategic Services intelligence officer during the battle of New Georgia. He also broke up a Nazi espionage ring in Hong Kong. Before the war he was a judge for the 1939 Miss America pageant, and in the 1950s was a syndicated columnist for the New York World Telegram, writing a “man about town” feature titled “New York Day By Day.” In 1951, he created the Leatherneck Cocktail, which debuted in Ted Saucier’s immortal book, Bottom’s Up. It’s interesting to note that Farrell referred to the blue curaçao as being “a new cordial in Holland not yet marketed here.”
Here’s to the few, the proud, the United States Marine Corps. Happy Birthday, and Semper Fi!