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Where There’s Rhum, There’s Ti’ Punch

July 16, 2020

Story: Ivy Mix

photo: Shannon Sturgis

The timeless trinity of rhum, lime and sugar is infinitely malleable and always complex.

Where there is rum, lime and sugar are never far behind. In rum-producing countries, this trinity of ingredients expresses itself in countless ways, whether swizzled into a Mojito, muddled into a Caipirinha or shaken into a Daiquiri. While many of these drinks have crossed borders, others remain singular representations of their particular sugarcane spirit and its place of origin.

Consider the lesser-known Ti’ Punch, official drink of the Caribbean’s French-speaking islands, particularly Martinique and Guadeloupe. This classic rhum cocktail was originally consumed by sugarcane fieldworkers as a quick bit of fortification during long, hot days spent cutting cane. In fact, the name literally means “small punch”—“ti’” is Creole for “petit.”

While traveling to research my book Spirits of Latin America, I realized quickly that everyone has their own riff on this relatively simple drink. How much lime meat on your disc of lime? Some cut deep into the juicy flesh, which provides a healthy dash of lime juice when the peel is expressed; others make a shallow cut, relying only on the citrus oils—no juice at all. Crystallized sugar or cane syrup for your sweetener? Some prefer the granular sugar in the bottom; others like it silky smooth. What about ice to chill it down? Purists will say absolutely not—there was no ice in the sugarcane fields. There is even an old retort in Martinique about the personalized nature of the drink’s preparation: “Chacun prépare sa propre mort.” (“Everyone prepares their own death.”)

What differentiates the Ti’ Punch from, say, the Caipirinha is both the way lime is integrated (via a disc-shaped lime peel versus wedges) and the spirit. The Caipirinha calls on Brazil’s native sugarcane spirit, cachaça, while the Ti’ Punch calls on rhum—and not white rum like you might find in a classic Daiquiri, but rhum with an “h,” or rhum agricole. This style of rhum is made from the fresh juice of sugarcane rather than the leftover molasses of sugar refining. Generally speaking, it’s high-octane and full of flavor.

Because the Ti’ Punch is defined by its ability to be customized, it inherently lends itself to new modern classics. One of my favorites was created by the head bartender at my Brooklyn bar, Leyenda. In her Lime in Ti’ Coconut, Leanne Favre amps up the grassy, funky flavor profile of the rhum by fat-washing it with coconut oil, giving it a rich mouthfeel and a creamy, buttery flavor profile. To highlight rich coconut, she added vanilla syrup in place of regular cane syrup, along with a touch of both blanc vermouth and fino sherry, which bring a bit of texture and wine-like complexity. It’s finished with a touch of salt and, of course, a twist of lime. It’s a drink that drinks somewhere between a classic Ti’ Punch and a Martini: a complex, bright bit of much-needed fortification.

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Ivy Mix has been recognized as one of the most renowned bartenders in the world. She owns Brooklyn bar, Leyenda, which was nominated for the James Beard Award for Outstanding Bar Program in 2019 for its dedication to Latin American spirits and cocktails. She also has won the Spirited Award for American Bartender of the Year at Tales of the Cocktail and was named Wine Enthusiast’s “Mixologist of the Year.” Additionally, she co-founded Speed Rack, a bartending competition for women that raised money for breast cancer research and prevention. She lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.