On most Caribbean islands and in Caribbean communities around the world, rum punch is more than just an easy-sipping mixed drink made with tropical juices and rum. It is, in many ways, a symbol of hospitality and a celebration of life. And depending on which island you’re on—whether you’re in St. Lucia at the Friday night jump-up getting your step on to some calypso or limin’ (which is to say, hanging or chilling) at a bar in Trinidad—the recipe, which is usually an eyeballed measure of rum(s), fruit juices, citrus, and spices, can vary, sometimes widely.
“Growing up in Trinidad, I've been to quite a few Caribbean islands,” says Sham Mahabir, the owner of Limin’ Beach Club, a Caribbean bar and restaurant in London. “And whenever I’m visiting, I always try the local rum punch. Based on my experiences, the drink varies a lot from island to island, culture to culture. This is partially because of the colonial histories of the islands and what has been drunk for generations, but modern recipes also differ because of the local ingredients (and rums) available, which vary in flavor depending on where you are. For example, in Jamaica, they use pimento as a main spice, both in cooking and sometimes in rum punches, while nutmeg is typically the go-to spice in Grenada.
“My family did not make rum punches as much, but thankfully my neighbors did,” Mahabir continues. “I am 100% sure there was no recipe, like most of Trinidadian cooking. It's more like a bit of this and a splash of that. I remember they would pick limes or lemons from the trees and squeeze them fresh. Then they’d mix citrus juices from a packet, brown sugar, water, local White Oak rum, and of course Trinidad and Tobago’s best export, Angostura bitters. The drink was always served over ice and garnished with lime zest and grated nutmeg. Looking back now, somehow it managed to taste incredible.”
The Rise of Punch
How did punch spread between islands, and then evolve into regionally varying recipes? A brief historical overview may help explain. Punch existed long before what we now think of as cocktails. The first written reference to punch, as it relates to drinks, dates back to 1632 in a letter composed by a man named Robert Addams, a British cavalry soldier who was stationed in India with the British East India Company. It was during the 17th and 18th centuries that “global expansion” (which is to say, colonization) and trade were on the rise, and travel by ship was the main means of transportation for European colonizers.
On their expeditions, British sailors—a population credited with the inadvertent creation of a range of cocktails—would typically be given a daily ration of beer or wine. But when it ran out, went flat, or spoiled in tropical climates (when en route to India, for instance), the crew would make alcoholic potions from other ingredients at a strength similar to that of wine.
While they were stationed in South and East Asia, spirits, most commonly arrack, served as the base of these mixed drinks. The local spirit was mixed with citrus (primarily to combat scurvy, a disease caused by a vitamin C deficiency) and whichever other fruits they could get their hands on, sugar, spices, and some form of dilution. It was this blend of ingredients, served from a puncheon, a style of 500-liter cask, that became known as punch. It would go on to become the most popular drink to consume globally.
British aristocrats who were able to afford exotic citrus fruits and spices became well-known for the large punch-filled bowls that fueled their parties, giving rise to the word’s use today as shorthand for a large-format party drink. But it was the sailors who consumed the greatest quantity of punch, and they’re the ones who brought it elsewhere, most notably the Caribbean.
“From Asia, punch traveled with English colonizers all over the world and was wildly popular by the late 17th century,” says Al Culliton, a cocktail historian. “The English built massive sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean and, because they were enslavers, these operations were extremely inexpensive to run, making rum a ubiquitous product in other English colonies, especially in North America.
“Rum, both imported from the Caribbean and produced in New England, was a spirit consumed across classes, but more-fortunate citizens would have taken it in the form of punch,” Culliton continues. “Punch was served all over the British empire, including in the Caribbean, in taverns as well as in private homes of the wealthy.”
From island to island, punch drinkers used local rums and ingredients to create the five-part drinks—the required components being spirit, sugar, water, spice, and citrus—which led to the proliferation of varying recipes across the Caribbean. It wasn’t until the Victorian era that communal punches fell out of favor to individual punches, giving way to the modern cocktail, and rum punch, as we know it.
Jamaican Rum Punches
Of all the Caribbean islands, rum punch is often most associated with Jamaica, where Planter’s Punch originated. That was the drink that marked the transition of punch being strictly served as a large-format mixed drink in bowls to a drink that could be served and enjoyed individually. It’s from this Jamaican rum punch’s template that all other individually portioned rum punches—what we now think of as cocktails—were born.
“I think of Planter’s Punch as the classic Caribbean punch recipe, even though it didn’t fully coalesce into its current form until the 19th century,” says Culliton. “This lag is because Planter’s Punch is a single-serving version of the large-format drink that summarizes the two centuries of Caribbean punch that came before it.
“The most elemental Caribbean punches would have been simple mixtures of rum, lemon or lime juice, and sugar, diluted with water or tea, and often with nutmeg grated on top,” Culliton continues. “The formula, passed down in a rhyme, was ‘one of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, and four of weak…a touch of spice to make it nice.’ Of course, as with every drink template, large-format or single-serve, variations proliferated almost from the outset.” And thus, regional rum punch variations began to appear across the Caribbean.
Modern-day Jamaican rum punches pull some inspiration from the classic Planter’s Punch, but the recipe has evolved over time into something that is often tailored to taste. “The modern Jamaican rum punch is characterized by its use of multiple fruit juices, including pineapple, orange, and lime, and of course nutmeg as the spice component to garnish,” Sly Augustin, the owner of Trailer Happiness in London, says of his favorite rum punch. “For me, the most important part of a Jamaican rum punch is the addition of overproof Jamaican rum. If someone hands you a Jamaican rum punch that doesn’t have overproof rum in it [most commonly Wray & Nephew], send it back!”
In addition to the core Jamaican rum punch components that Augustin mentions, sorrel, also known as the hibiscus flower, is another one of the more popular ingredients that can be found in punches in the country, especially around Christmastime, when a traditional sorrel drink is usually consumed. Not only does it add a brightness and herbal depth to the punch, complementing the spice element, it also adds a gorgeous deep-reddish-purple hue to the drink.
The French Caribbean’s Ti’ Punch
In both Martinique and Guadeloupe, Ti’ Punch (short for petit, or small, punch) is the national cocktail. Unlike many of the other fruit-juice-laden Caribbean rum punches, this style is stripped back and is more akin to an Old Fashioned than to the classic Planter’s Punch.
Rhum agricole is the rum of choice. It’s the local style of rum, made from fermented sugar cane juice rather than the more-common molasses, which gives the rhum a fresh, grassy funk. The agricole used in Ti’ Punch is usually unaged, or blanc, although it can be aged as well. The way it’s consumed is simple: a healthy pour of rhum into a rocks glass or small snifter, a gentle squeeze of lime, a dollop of sirop de canne (sugarcane syrup), and a lime coin, which adds the essential oils of the lime peel to the drink. It’s often served without ice or other dilution.
“The Ti’ Punch is an incredibly simple yet enjoyable drink that owes much of its complexity to the use of agricole rhum, which is usually 50% ABV, and the fresh cane syrup,” says Augustin. “This contrasts from the Barbados punch, which is similar, except it’s a bit more refined, with the addition of water, nutmeg, and bitters.” Ti’ Punch is certainly an outlier as far as Caribbean rum punches are concerned, with its simple preparation, and as such serves as a great example of punch’s regional differences.
A Carnival Drink in the Cayman Islands
In the neighboring Cayman Islands, a self-governing British overseas territory, the local rum punches bear a similarity to the ones served in Jamaica—perhaps unsurprising, given the colonial histories shared by the two countries. While the country’s rum-drinking history isn’t well-documented, Caymanian Maya Elizabeth Grant, the owner and lead bartender at Fusion Mixology, says that the original Caymanian rum punch was made with a white rum (likely pot-distilled given its roots as a British colony). “Today, when we make rum punch here, we often use Appleton, Bacardi, and Wray and Nephew as the rums,” says Grant. “The rum punch is quite a versatile one on our island because every person here has their own personal blend and mix of different rums and juices.
“It’s usually consumed mostly around our festival time of year,” Grant continues. “We have various carnivals and parties that happen, such as Batabano, Braccanal, and Caymas. This is when there are lots of people, music trucks, costumes, and good vibes happening all around the island. For these occasions, rum punch is the easy pre-mixed drink that keeps the party going.”
In the Caribbean and beyond, rum punch has, in a way, come full circle. Like the communal punches of old, rum punch, while still served individually, albeit often pre-batched in a larger container or jug to facilitate a high volume of consumption, has become a symbol of conviviality—a beverage to be drunk in good company. And, clearly, depending on where you are and who you’re with, the rum punch you’re drinking will be as special and unique as the individual who made it for you.
How to Make Rum Punch
Unlike most cocktails, rum punch follows few rules. As long as the mixture balances citrus and fruit juices, a spice element, a sweetener, and some rum(s), the rest of the ingredients and the technique used to make it are up to individual interpretation. “For me, regardless of the ingredients used and what inspired the recipe, a rum punch should almost taste like something made in a home rather than a bar,” days Augustin. “It’s not perfectly balanced; it’s often a little boozy, and it’s always a lot of fun to drink. As a descendant of the Caribbean, my relationship with rum punch will always be informal. I’ll take a good rum punch in a plastic cup, no problem.”
At Trailer Happiness, Augustin’s house rum punch made in the Jamaican style, the Portobello Rum Punch, abides by his belief that Jamaican rum punch should always have overproof rum in it. His bar uses Wray & Nephew, to which he adds some blue food coloring in order to yield a festive blue hue.
Most importantly, no matter which rum is employed, it must be good-quality. “You have to use a good rum,” says Augustin. “Too many punches are born because someone is trying to hide the taste of bad rum under a fountain of syrups and juices. Use fresh juices and nutmeg (or some type of spice), and you're most of the way there.” The Portobello Rum Punch calls for guava and lime juices, sugar syrup, a blend of three rums, and Angostura bitters as the spice element. It’s a simple recipe that easily allows for the guava juice to be replaced with pineapple, orange, passionfruit, mango, or any other fruit juice.
For any rum punch that Mahabir makes, including the one that his team developed at Limin’ Beach Club, he believes that lime is the requisite citrus, as opposed to lemon, as it best balances whichever other fruit juices are used, such as mango or pineapple. Limin’s house rum punch combines the bar’s own independently bottled rum, Limin’ Beach Rum, with mango, passionfruit, and lime juices, grenadine, and Angostura bitters, all served on the rocks. It’s a crowd-pleaser that follows the standard rum punch template, with a subtle twist in the blend of tropical fruit juices and the sweetener which, in this case, is grenadine.
“Over my years of teaching cocktails and bartending in Grand Cayman, I’ve started to understand rum punch as being at least two or three different rums, whether you choose spiced, white, dark, or gold rum, and a blend of fruit juices: cranberry, orange, pineapple, passion fruit, etc,” says Grant. “While growing up, I had a lot of different people suggest various rums to mix and blend with, some boozier and some more savory. The best way to learn which style you like best is to go out and try as many as you can.”