Five O’Clock Somewhere: A Fine Poncha at Reid’s Palace, Madeira
Madeira, the rocky Portuguese outcrop in the middle of the Atlantic is synonymous with two things: Cristiano Ronaldo and fortified wine.
While the footballer’s reputation may have waned over the years, the popularity of the sweet after-dinner drink that evokes dried fruit and nuts has only grown since its invention in the 17th century. In fact, in the last five years, Madeira wine has become a hot commodity in the Far East with exports to China growing over 1,300 per cent. So when taking a stroll on a Saturday night down the cobbled streets of the capital city Funchal I was shocked to see that barely a drop was being drunk. Instead, I learnt, the locals have their own secret spirit that far outweighs Madeira wine in popularity.
It’s called poncha and it’s typically made with sugar cane brandy, lemon and honey, plus maybe orange, passion fruit, or even absinthe, depending on the dangerousness of the bar you are in. Poncha’s origins lie in the Indian drink panch, the recipe for which sailed into the island’s ports 300-hundred-years-ago as a cure for sailors’ scurvy. Local fisherman quickly adopted it to keep themselves warm on grueling night shifts. "You can drink poncha when you’re happy, when you’re sad, it even cures the common cold," says Luís Sousa, head barman at the island’s most famous hotel Reid’s Palace. But, be careful, he warns me; "Three and you think you’re fluent in Portuguese, four and you’re on the floor."
Set into a corner of cliffside overlooking the frothing ocean, the elegant pink residence opened in 1891. It was built by a canny Scotsman to lure well-heeled Europeans from visiting steam liners — guests were originally carted from tenders up the craggy slope in hammocks carried by porters. The hotel boasts a tidal-fed lagoon pool, verdant tropical gardens and a ballroom where George Bernard Shaw learnt to Tango. Winston Churchill also visited after the Second World War when he sought somewhere ‘Warm, bathable, comfortable and flowery,’ to pen his memoirs.
The real reason people to flock to Reid’s Palace, though, is the terrace. Between towering white columns and rose-coloured walls, guests can recline into wicker chairs and soak in the panoramic view of bougainvillea, geranium and aloe vera plants, then beyond to the waves. Under Sousa’s watchful eye, they can also drink poncha.
He has spent the last 27 years perfecting his own poncha recipe at the hotel. He tells me he personally likes to swap the brandy for gin and the honey always has to come from local bee keepers (including the hotel’s own F&B Manager), because the island’s sub-tropical climate is perfect for fragrant flowers.
He also says he likes to add local tamarillos, which he dehydrates using a special contraption. And if those are out of season, he uses guava. To finish it off, five ice cubes and fresh fennel. The result is Reid’s signature cocktail; a bright orange, heady drink called the Fine Poncha.
It’s sweet and delicious and I drink it quickly — with ease — while munching on the traditional accompaniment of peanuts and lupin beans. Afterwards, I order another, which goes down even easier, but I refuse a third, instead thinking always follow the barman’s advice and quit while you’re ahead. Or maybe venture out to find the absinthe version.
A Fine Poncha at Reid’s Palace
40 ml of Gin Tanqueray Sevilla
20 ml of Galliano
20 ml of Bols liquor — strawberry
80 ml of fresh orange juice
5 ice cubes
Cut the tangerine into small cubes without removing the peel and place them in a highball glass
Add a sprinkling of sugar and muddle
Pour in the orange juice and stir with a long-handled spoon
Strain into a shaker
Add in the gin, Galliano and Bols and shake well
Pour into a glass containing the ice and garnish with fennel