On Island Time with the Ti' Punch

On Island Time with the Ti' Punch

Our resident beverage buff, Eric Twardzik, makes the case for a rum cocktail straight from the beautiful isle of Martinique.

Illustration by John Molesworth.

Rum’s reputation suffers from many misconceptions, chief among them the notion that the category is “sweet.” Though the spirit is indeed distilled from sugar, rum can prove just as complex and rewarding as any top-shelf single malt.  

Enter rhum agricole: this subset of the category is made from freshly pressed sugar cane juice rather than molasses, earning it a characteristically rustic taste and the French name meaning “agricultural rum.” While made in many current or former French possessions, one geographic location in particular can be trusted for the top-notch stuff: Martinique. 

The Caribbean island and French overseas department is the sole producer of rhum agricole that enjoys appellation d’origine contrôlée status, the same government certification that limits where cognac and champagne can be made and keeps its producers up to snuff. For this reason, Martinique’s makers must abide by a strict set of standards governing everything from sugarcane cultivation to barrel-aging.  

The emphasis on locally grown ingredients and sustainable agricultural standards brings us to that other hallowed French concept: terroir. Sip on Rhum Clément Blanc—an excellent starting point—to discover funky, vegetal aromas and flavors of fresh-cut grass and legumes that make it the rummy equivalent of a barnyard wine. For something headier pull for Rhum J.M. 110 Proof Blanc, which retains that floral sugarcane funk but pulls in tropical fruits and hot spice.

But don’t get the impression that rhum agricole must only be consumed in hushed tones over white tablecloths. It’s still rum, and a worthy companion to sunshine and silk polo shirts. I enjoy using it in a Daiquiri, where its grassy, floral funk can turn the three-ingredient classic on its head. 

However, there’s only one way to consume it on Martinique (other than neat, of course) and that’s something called ‘Ti Punch. Its name comes from the creole word for “petite,” and this “little punch” is made with rhum agricole, a bit of sugar, and a slice of lime. Laborers in Martinique’s cane fields used it as a workday lubricant, and today it serves as the island’s national drink.

While its exact preparation varies from household to household—many of which maintain a dedicated mise en place for its creation—I’ve been instructed to do the following: slice off the end of a lime, taking about a sixth of the fruit in the process, then squeeze its juices into a rocks glass. Next, fold your lime into a “taco,” and fill its opening with simple syrup. Once filled, drop the “taco” and its syrup into the glass, then pour enough rum to float the lime. Lastly, mix its contents by dipping a swizzle stick (metal straws work in a pinch) into the glass and vigorously swizzle by passing its stem between your palms. 

And voilà, you have the rhum agricole equivalent of the Old-Fashioned, a drink that brightens its spirit with a squeeze of citrus and tames it slightly with sugar while allowing its full character to shine.

Naturally, modern drinkers may desire something more scientific: I’ve simplified its procedure and added concrete measurements in the recipe below. Tradition dictates blanc rhum agricole for the drink’s creation, but you may use an aged rhum agricole to make a Ti’ Punch vieux. And while tradition forbids ice, I won’t tell if you plonk a cube or two in for the purpose of refreshment. After all, it’s only rum. 

Ti’ Punch

60 ml rhum agricole 

1 teaspoon simple syrup

Lime coin

Slice a lime about one-sixth of the way from its end and squeeze its juices into a chilled rocks glass. Drop the lime into the glass and add syrup and rhum. Swizzle until the rhum and syrup have mixed, and enjoy.