How to Make Martinique’s National Drink – Robb Report
Don’t be fooled by the Ti’ Punch. Of course, the list of ingredients may seem innocuous, even seductive: rum, lime and sugar? Why, this is practically Mojito territory! And of course, they are enjoyed, exuberantly and in quantity, by seemingly every adult in Martinique and Guadalupe, regardless of age, gender, or outward drinking ability. These two facts could cause you to whistle towards a Ti ‘Punch, expecting a hug. It would be wrong. The clue is in the name – don’t think ‘punch’ sounds like something fruity out of a pewter bowl. Think of “punching” as a quick hit to the head.
Ti’ Punch—Ti’ being the Creole word for “small,” meaning little—is the national drink of the French-speaking Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. It is thought of as an aperitif and is offered as a courtesy before each meal except breakfast. Often your Ti’ Punch won’t be made for you so much as you’ll be directed to a do-it-yourself Ti’ Punch station your host has set up somewhere on a counter. You trot on it and do it, per tradition, like this: In a rock glass, add about a teaspoon of cane sugar syrup, squeeze a quarter disc of lime, and a few ounces of white rhum agricole. You stir to mix everything together, and voila, you have yourself a Ti’ Punch.
What’s so hard about it? Well, let’s start with the spirit – in the French Caribbean they make rum (as they write) from fresh sugarcane juice as opposed to molasses, so their rhum agricole is grassy and funky and frankly a little weird, offered via double barrel blast of being unaged (no oak to sweeten the eccentricities of the mind) and high proof (between 50-55 percent alcohol). Then there is the recipe itself, the quantity of the ingredients. There’s just a tiny bit of sugar and a few drops of lime juice – it’s not a variation of a Daiquiri, it’s a variation of an Old Fashioned, with lime in place of bitters. And finally, notice that something is missing? How about ice cream? While many people (including me) add ice, for traditionalists it’s strictly a room temperature cocktail, and in Martinique this piece is often in the 80’s.
So why, you might be wondering, would anyone drink hot, overly tough, weird, unaged Old Fashioned rum? Because once you have tasted agricultural rum, you fall in love with it. Like tequila-infused mezcal, rhum agricole has a depth and complexity that can make regular rum feel sanitized and even a little innocuous. Plus, the Ti’ Punch is, in my humble opinion, the best possible way to drink the spirit, showcasing all of its charms and nuances and filing off some of its sharper edges. It’s one of the few cocktails in the industry that enjoys universal respect – saying Ti’ Punch is your favorite drink is like saying Jean Luc Godard is your favorite director, an unimpeachable choice (although sometimes pretentious).
The magic of travel is such that if you’ve been to Martinique or Guadeloupe, the sights, sounds and boundless charm of the locals have probably already made you fall in love with Ti’ Punch. If you haven’t had the fun – and haven’t disabled any of the above – I encourage you to give it a try. Order one at your local rum or cocktail bar. Do yourself a favor: add ice.
- 2oz. White Agricultural Rum
- 0.25oz. Cane sugar syrup
- 1 piece lime, about the size of a quarter, sliced to include some flesh
In a highball glass with ice, squeeze 10-15 drops of lime into the glass, add syrup and rum, and stir briefly to incorporate. Take a sip and imagine the sound of waves lapping gently on a sandy shore.
Notes on ingredients
White Agricultural Rum: There are not many distilleries on these islands, and they all make good rum: Rhum JM, Neisson, Clément, La Favorite, Saint James and others. I have a weakness for the Cane Bleue Clément Blanc, but it is not necessarily superior to the others, it is just the one with which I have the most experience. Any of them will make a good Ti’ Punch. And while most of these distillers make a 40% ABV spirit for export, if you want the traditional experience, make it 50% minimum.
That being said, a number of producers outside of these islands make r(h)um from sugarcane juice rather than molasses, and many of them are quite good. If the idea of a Ti’ Punch appeals to you but you don’t feel ready for the full intensity, feel free to opt for a milder “farm” style rum like Copalli, from Belize, which is less tough and less funky than its island cousins.
Cane sugar syrup : One thing everyone does there was to use a syrup made from sugarcane juice. There are a few different producers – JM Sirop and Petit Canne Syrup and many more – and you can find it at any decent cocktail supply store.
It would be similar and much easier to make a demerara syrup: Get some unrefined demerara or turbinado sugar (“Sugar in the Raw” or similar) and mix it in equal parts with hot water, and stir until until the sugar dissolves. You can make plain white sugar if that’s all you have, but you lose some of the rustic molasses character of the sugar and it doesn’t taste as good.
Lime: One of the reasons for the tradition of mix-it-yourself station Ti’ Punch – what they delightfully call “Everyone Prepares Their Own Death” is the discrepancy in terms of the amount of lime desired. Although it’s traditionally just a few drops, you can make as many as you want. I would say the acceptable range is between 1/4 oz. (a squeeze of a good sized wedge or two) and none (just lime oil from the peel). Too much and you start getting into daiquiri or caipirinha territory, which is a completely different drink.