Above: a Ti’ Punch in Terre de Haut, Guadeloupe (All photos by CJ)
By Alexander Britell
No matter where you are in the West Indies, you will find rum punch. And it is almost always perfect, except when a few too many bitters steal their way in.
In Puerto Rico, the Pina Colada is king, born in San Juan, where two places vie for the claim of its birthplace but only one remains faithful to history (Barrachina, in Old San Juan).
In the British Virgin Islands, there is the famous Painkiller, best at the Soggy Dollar but good almost anywhere.
In Cuba, there is the Mojito and then the Daiquiri, which Hemingway used to drink at El Floridita. (the Mojito he used to drink at La Bodeguitadel Medio).
But there is one cocktail that rises above them all; the one that begins each meal in the French West Indies, the one that can both make planes take off and settle down wild afternoons.
If you go to a restaurant or bar in Martinique or Guadeloupe or St Barth (and sometimes in St Martin), there is only one proper way to be served a Ti’ Punch (literally “little punch”): the ingredients must be brought to your table: rhum blanc, a quarter of lime, either cane syrup or, more often, cane sugar grown in the French Caribbean.
You decide how much rum to pour and sugar to sprinkle, although there is an unseen code that governs.
There is no science to the brief stir — fast, then slow, then fast again. Or perhaps it’s the other way around.
It is at first biting; then it smooths, and the rum and the sugar and the lime meld into one and then they meld together with the afternoon sun. And then, when the drink makes absolutely perfect sense, you order another.
Above: a Ti’ Punch about to be made at La Playa in Marie-Galante
It is great because it is simple: it asks for little, needs no ice, can be made in a moment. And everything in it is made nearby: the rhum from the waving cane fields, the lime grown in usually volcanic soil, the sugar, too (though the best comes from Marie-Galante).
Above: a Ti’ Punch at Cap-Est in Martinique
Drinking it is not easy — it takes time to enjoy because of its potency (with rhum usually 100 proof or above — or as the French say, 50 degrees). But as you slowly sip it, it reveals something, and in one tiny cocktail glass the mystery of the French Caribbean, the thing that makes it so different and so beautiful, is revealed.
This is the Ti’ Punch, and it is the greatest cocktail in the Caribbean.