The diversity within the rum category sets it apart from other spirits. One of the most enigmatic styles is rhum agricole, a distinctly potent and pungent rum that has been the spirit du jour in the French Caribbean islands for centuries. It’s also the only rum that can be used to make a proper Ti’ Punch—the unofficial drink of Guadeloupe and Martinique. (The “ti’” in the name is the abbreviation for the Creole “petite.”)
“Ti’ Punch is part of the daily life in the French Caribbean,” says Ben Jones, the North America director for Martinique distillery Rhum Clément. “It’s not much different than espresso in Italy. Most people like it strong as a pick-me-up throughout the day.”
Though the ingredients closely mirror those in the Daiquiri and Caipirinha, the character and allure of the Ti’ Punch are more akin to the Old Fashioned. To make it, lightly pinch and deposit a quarter-size slice of lime (including some of the meat) into a rocks glass, and stir or swizzle (never shake) with one barspoon or less of cane syrup and about one-and-a-half ounces of rhum agricole (usually the unaged blanc variety). Ice is optional.
When made right, a hint of lime combined with the sweetness and aromatics of fresh sugar cane and cane syrup perfectly balances the grassy funkiness of the rhum, making this drink a seductive original.
Like many classic cocktails, the execution of the Ti’ Punch varies according to personal taste. Hosts often present a setup so that guests can serve themselves. “Each person has always prepared their own Petite Punch, or Ti’ Punch, the way they liked,” says Jones. “It’s customary to welcome any friends and family at any occasion with a Ti’ Punch.”
Bringing French Caribbean Culture to the U.S.
Ed Hamilton is largely responsible for bringing the rhum agricole of the islands to the U.S. through his importing company, Caribbean Spirits. The Ti’ Punch provided Hamilton with the perfect vessel to introduce American bartenders to the rum he loved. “For me, Ti’ Punch is the first rhum agricole drink I will serve someone who is new to the spirit,” he says.
“I think the Ti’ Punch is one of the best ways to dip your toe into the pool of rhum agricole,” says Brian Miller, the head bartender at ZZ’s Clam Bar in New York City, known for its pitch-perfect Tiki drinks. “There’s no place for the rhum to hide in that drink. And it doesn’t get clouded by the other ingredients. It’s as close as you’re going to get to the true feeling for a rhum agricole without drinking it straight, which I do highly recommend.”
An early beneficiary of Hamilton’s mission was Thad Vogler, who opened Bar Agricole in San Francisco in 2010. “The first time I had a Ti’ Punch, it was made for me by Ed Hamilton; it would have been 2002 I think,” says Vogler, whose new book, “By the Smoke and the Smell” (Ten Speed Press, $27), chronicles his travels in pursuit of artisan spirits. “He was pouring me his agricole rhums for the first time, and they were blowing my mind. He then jumped behind the bar and made me a Ti Punch.”
With the bar world’s growing appetite for lesser-known spirits, agricole is seeing an uptick. “I think the recent fascinations with mezcal, bold whiskeys, oxidized wines, sour beers and other esoteric beverages has only helped with people’s willingness to explore rhum agricole,” says Jones.
How to Make a Great Ti’ Punch
One challenge to making Ti’ Punch is choosing the right rhum agricole. Usually, high-proof (100 proof or more) rhum agricole blanc is preferred to lower-proof rhum blanc or aged rhum, which tends to be bottled at a lower proof. While 80-proof rhum agricole blanc is available in the U.S., Hamilton says that in Martinique they only drink the 100-proof stuff. He thinks it “has a lot more flavor and makes a much better drink.”
If you’re drinking the cocktail with ice, it’s traditional to use a swizzle stick, called a “bois lélé” on the islands. Miller likes to swizzle after adding “a few pieces of crushed ice ... till the ice dissolves.” And he says if you want the final product cold but not too diluted, “swizzle with no ice and then add one cube before serving.”
As today’s creative bartenders are prone to do, many have created interesting variations on the classic. T.J. Palmieri, the owner and operator at Madrina’s in Gainesville, Fla., swizzles hibiscus syrup, lime and passion fruit juices with a lot of crushed ice in his variation, the Maracuya Mistress.
Nick Detrich, a partner at Cane & Table in New Orleans, reaches for an aged rum to create the Coffee & Ti’, which uses rhum agricole aged 10 years that he combines with a small amount of coffee amaro.
But in the end, says Jones, the Ti’ Punch is all about connecting with the moment. “There’s really no other drink that I enjoy better when I am in a certain place,” says Jones. “The first one I have as soon as I arrive in Martinique is always an ‘ahhh’ experience.”