As I write this the back door of my kitchen is open, so I can take advantage of the day’s balmy breeze. In Brooklyn. In February. It’s sunny, there’s not a cloud in the sky, and I’m scared. On the other hand, it’s sunny, there’s not a cloud in the sky, and the breeze is balmy. Sure, it’s a month and a half early, but if spring hath sprung, I’m going to shrug off all those heavy, brown winter drinks and wiggle into something a little lighter and brighter; hang up my rye Old-Fashioneds and break out their warm-weather equivalent, the ‘Ti Punch.
‘Ti Punch, if you’re not familiar with it, is the characteristic short drink of the French Caribbean, and has been at least since the 1880s. While its name, “Petit Punch,” or “Little Punch” in Kriyou (the local dialect of French), indicates something light and juicy, the actual drink is not that.
With a little splash of sugarcane syrup in the bottom of an Old-Fashioned glass, a squeeze of lime peel to add a couple of drops of the juice and a spray of the peel’s bitter oil, and as much 100-proof rhum agricole as you’re in the mood for, swizzled together with ice, the drink is, if anything, even simpler and stronger than the Old-Fashioned, while still conveying a little of the tropical ease we expect from a warm-weather drink. Although not exactly refreshing the way, say, a Daiquiri or a Caipirinha is refreshing, it nonetheless suggests refreshment. Perfect for weather that suggests heat without actually being hot.
The key to the drink is the rum. You can make it with an ordinary white rum, and it will be drinkable but nothing more. Rhum agricole, distilled from fresh cane juice, rather than the usual molasses, is an altogether tangier animal, dry and grassy and not sugary or vanilla-y in the slightest. That dry spice makes it, I suppose, the rye whiskey of the rum world. There are only a few brands available here (or, really, anywhere: Martinique only has 14 operating distilleries). The divine La Favorite, if you can find it, is perhaps my favorite, unless that’s Neisson. J.M makes a very fine one as well.
All of these are bottled at the traditional strength of 50-percent alcohol. While Clément, perhaps the most widely available brand, has a 50-percent version, which can stand up with the others, its 40-percent version is less satisfying in a ‘Ti Punch. For all of these brands, the version you want is the white or unaged one. The aged ones are nice for sipping, but lack the brightness that makes a ‘Ti Punch pop.
The cocktail’s sugar syrup is also important. If you can get an authentic Martinique sirop de canne, you’re all set (most of the rhum brands make them). If not, you can make an effective substitute by stirring 2 parts Demerara sugar and 1 part water over a low flame until the sugar has dissolved and then letting the resulting syrup cool.
For the lime, you’ll need a disc, a little larger than a quarter, cut from the side of the fruit so that only a bit of the flesh is included. Ice is ice, although cracked is best (here I should note that the ice is somewhat controversial in Martinique: many insist it doesn’t belong in there; don’t listen to them). Finally, there’s the bois lélé, the wooden swizzle stick cut from the stem and horizontally-radiating roots of the lélé tree. While it’s fun to spin the stem between your hands as the rotating rootlets stir up your drink, a plain old bar spoon works fine, too.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go swizzle myself up one of these tissue-restorers and catch some rays in the back yard while I can. By the time March rolls around, it’ll probably be 90 degrees out there and I’ll be shut inside with the air-conditioner blasting. Sun-Belt living.
Cane syrupQuarter-sized lime peel disc2 oz Rhum agricoleGlass: Old-Fashined
Pour a little cane syrup in the bottom of an Old-Fashioned glass, to taste. (I find you don’t even need to cover the bottom of the glass.) Squeeze, skin-side down, a disc of lime peel into the glass and drop it in. Fill the glass with cracked ice. Add rhum agricole to taste—2 ounces, more or less, is a good target—and swizzle or stir.