During past blind tastings, in which the PUNCH staff has tried to find the ultimate interpretation of this or that cocktail, the office bar was always crowded with bottles.
During the most recent tasting, however, it was almost empty. That’s because you don’t need much to make a Ti’ Punch. The national drink of Martinique is simplicity itself, a DIY cocktail consisting of rhum agricole, a little cane syrup and limes, that anyone can make. (The “Ti’” is short for “petit.”) But, as with other seemingly simple drinks, such as the Old-Fashioned and Martini, that doesn’t mean that excellence is easily achieved—at least in the eyes of Ti’ Punch devotees.
The Top Three
For a good, long time, almost all of those advocates resided on the French Caribbean isles the drink calls home, Martinique and Guadeloupe, where rhum agricole, the distinctly grassy rum distilled from cane juice rather than molasses, is made. But with the cocktail revival has come cocktail globalism. Soon after new-juice-seeking, globe-trotting American bartenders discovered rhum agricole, they discovered Ti’ Punch and brought it back to the States. A few of those converts joined PUNCH during a recent tasting of eleven different Ti’ Punches, including Kate Perry, formerly of the Seattle rum bar Rumba and now the US market manager for La Maison & Velier; Austin Hartman, owner of Paradise Lounge in Ridgewood, Queens; and St. John Frizell, owner of Fort Defiance in Brooklyn.
Perry first encountered the drink in Martinique in 2011 while doing research prior to opening Rumba. “I knew that was the thing to drink there,” she recalled. “It was strange. My palate was unaccustomed to it in 2011, but it grew on me quickly to the point where that’s all I drank for years.”
Like all new believers, the panelists’ views on right and wrong, where the drink was concerned, were narrow and strongly held. For the spirit, they wanted a blanc—no aged rhum allowed—and the liquid had to be at least 50 percent alcohol by volume. “They make 40 percent only for the American market,” said Perry. “It has to be 50 to be authentic.”
Perry pointed out that people in Martinque often used plain sugar as a sweetener. But the bartender judges all preferred cane syrup, if only for expediency and consistency’s sake. “Crystalized sugar has no place behind my bar,” said Frizell.
As for that curious lime disk or coin, which is described as being the size of a silver dollar or half dollar, they insisted the shape and size and cut of the fruit were paramount. They didn’t want to see any lime twists or wedges; those had no place in a Ti’ Punch. The coin, which should ideally be cut from thin-skinned limes, should have a little bit of pith and flesh on its underside, enough to extract a drop or two of juice—but not too much, or you might stumble disastrously into Daiquiri territory.
The very idea that a Ti’ Punch might end up tasting like a Daiquiri or a Caipirinha, or any other of the time-honored cocktails in the rum-sugar-lime family, gave the panelists horrors. One submission, which boasted too much lime and ice for the judges’ tastes, was dismissed as an “airport Daiquiri.” Another, with multiple limes in the glass, was deemed a decent drink, but more closely resembling a Caipirinha.
The panelist also bridled at the suggestion that Ti’ Punch had any association with the rum-soaked tiki world. “It’s the opposite of tiki,” insisted Hartman. “It’s not about layering. It’s about the power of simplicity. There’s tiki and then there’s island classics.” (That said, a few of the competing drinks hailed from tiki bars. Where there’s rum, there’s rum.)
More than any other issue, the matter of temperature came up most frequently. Hartman and Perry preferred the drink at room temperature, not only because such a preparation was historically authentic, but it showcased the often pungent, vegetal flavors of the spirit. “There’s something about no ice,” said Hartman. “You get the rhum, you get the lime. It’s such a beautiful drink.”
But not everyone agrees. Even rum importer Ed Hamilton, a strict Ti’ Punch purist, said, via email, that ice “is not considered sacrilege.” Frizell was initially not opposed to the competing drinks that had ice, but admitted, by the end of the tasting, that he had come around to Perry and Hartman’s way of thinking.
Frizell’s conversion was borne out in the results. All three cocktails that placed were ice-free. The winning drink came from Jen Akin of Rumba (a bartender Perry trained). Her version consisted of half a barspoon of Sirop J.M (a brand of bottled cane syrup from Martinique), a small lime coin and two ounces of Rhum J.M Blanc 100-proof. Unlike many of the other recipes, the instructions were simple: “Add lime, then syrup, then rhum into the glass. Swizzle and serve.” The judges loved the body and strong flavors of the drink. “This tastes correct,” said Perry.
Pablo Moix of Dama in Los Angeles came in second. His recipe called for a lime disk covered with a scant barspoon of Petite Canne Sugar Cane Syrup (another cane syrup brand from Martinique) to be pressed a bit with the spoon before two-and-a-quarter ounces of La Favorite rhum agricole is added. Coming in third was Hartman himself, with his mix of one-and-a-half ounces of Rhum J.M 110-proof, a half-ounce of Sirop J.M and a lime disk. His method read as follows: “With the lime disk skin side facing down, place your swizzle stick atop… and swizzle the punch until the oils, rhum and sirop have blended (about 6 to 8 seconds).”
Hartman departed for another appointment shortly after the tasting was complete, leaving the remains of his victorious drink behind. His exit brought to Perry’s mind yet another Ti’ Punch criterion. “I think that’s important—when you walk away and you still taste it,” she said. “That’s the signature of a good Ti’ Punch.”