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Keep the Bajan Punch in Your Back Pocket

The best drinks are usually the simple ones; the ones the locals drink in sessions, one right after the other. Whether that’s a Pastis in Southern France, a Sazerac in New Orleans, or a Long Island Iced Tea …on the Jersey Shore. My current favorite example of that idea is the Bajan Punch, from Barbados (that’s right, “BAY-sian”, not Barbadian). It’s a drink every bartender should understand and have in their back pocket for that customer looking for a simple, refreshing classic.

I hate to admit how many times Jeffrey Morgenthaler inspires me, but he did it again with his recent Playboy article on the Planter’s Punch and its lack of definition [1]. Throughout my early years of bartending (way before “the mixology” came to light again) the Planter’s Punch was every bit as varied from bar to bar, as Morgenthaler mentions, but at least it was indeed known by name. I remember the core recipe that I used was something like this:

·       whatever rum is in the well

·       OJ

·       Grenadine

·       Myers’s rum float

When I looked at his version (below), knowing what I know now about Authentic Caribbean Rum drinks (and other stuff), I prefer Morgenthaler’s drink to mine. The theory of this being a Jamaican punch is most significant in understanding the “funk” to be found in Jamaican pot stilled rum, for it is that funky flavor that ultimately makes a Planter’s Punch (and most Jamaican rum, for that matter) unique.

1½ oz. dark Jamaican rum (he likes to use half Myers’s and half Appleton Estate 12 Year)
¾ oz. lemon juice
½ oz. 2:1 simple syrup
1 oz. fresh orange juice
1 dash Angostura bitters

Morgenthaler’s article immediately reminded me of the drink I have been making since I got back from Barbados, which was relatively unknown to me in the ’90s and throughout most of my career: The Bajan Punch.

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         This simple, local drink (that most just call “Rum Punch”, as they do across the Caribbean) is just a local version of the same poetic, colloquial concept as the Planter’s Punch: some version of “one of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak, a dash of bitters, sprinkle of spice”. But I never knew this concept as a young bartender and I certainly never made it this way. Now I make it all of the time.

As a historically-inspired kind of guy, I like knowing “foundation drinks” and this is absolutely one of those. Dave Wondrich tells us in Punch that Richard Ligon is the first to document Punch being made in Barbados during his stay between 1647 and 1650, and that he probably didn’t have the real concept down just yet (or alternatively, that the word “punch” was used for any strong drink)[2]. Fredrich H. Smith, in his 2005 book Caribbean Rum, tells us that Ligon was most likely speaking about the fermented sugar wine “grippo” made by the local Arawak people [3]. Lastly, Dave goes on to point out that Punch was evidently widely popular in those mid-Seventeenth Century colonial days [4]. So that makes Punch, made in Barbados, a pretty early, authentic version of the concept.

Most of what I saw while out and about in Barbados was made with an aged rum, most likely a 3-5 year version of a blended local rum (in this sense, “blended” means a blend of both pot and column-distilled rums). It would thereby have the robust flavor of pot distillate and some crisp balance from a column distillate; a nice mix of rums for punch, all in one Bajan rum bottle.

The addition of sugar, or syrup, to a rum drink is an obvious “gimmie”. All of the rum world is a sugar world, after all.  As with any use of sugar, balance is the key to optimizing its wonders; not excess. And the darker or funkier the sugar, the more flavor complexity you’ll get in your Punch.

The question of “why lime over lemon” can be resolved by looking at what David Watts says the Guyanan Arawak were growing close to their homes across Barbados,

“Of these non-native crops, the Citrus grew particularly well, some (especially the bitter orange and the lime) escaping quickly to become pioneer weeds”[5].

Weeds. Limes grew like weeds all over Barbados, spread via the cows who ate the citrus and pooped out the undigested seeds wherever they damn pleased [6]. That’s why limes, not lemons.

San Francisco’s home grown rum guru Martin Cate lists his “Barbados Rum Punch” on Liquor.com[7] with a sweet and sour balance of one ounce of lime juice to one ounce of rich simple. This is a tad bit different than the recipes below, but remember that the sweet and sour balance of a drink is always something you can play with and is going to change your drink marginally, which should be done based on your own palate (or that of the person you are serving). A rich simple provides a different sweetness and viscosity than a 1:1 simple. So play with it to find your favorite version.

So at the core, we’ve got rum, sugar and lime; what most people would call a Daiquiri. The difference here lies both in the selection of rum (a classic Daiquiri originated with a lighter style, column stilled rum in Cuba), and in the fact that the Daiquiri stops there with ingredients (not to mention the difference in how it is served). With the Bajan Punch, the ingredient list continues.

The use of Angostura bitters is fairly ubiquitous throughout Barbados today. Not invented until 1824, it obviously wasn’t used in early Punch, but today it is a widely-available source of a bittering agent to further balance the sweet, as well as being a “dash of spice” (bringing those mixed warm baking spices that are so familiar to the Caribbean, in a convenient dasher bottle). Why wouldn’t you use it?

Nutmeg is the last bit and is a significant feather in the Punch cap. Beyond highlighting the mixed baking spices of the Angostura, it brings a freshness to the drink, but only when fresh grated. Nutmeg was so ubiquitous in colonial days that people (more wealthy people) carried custom, silver nutmeg graters that were the shape and size of one seed (and of other designs). They would twist or snap open from a center line, store one nutmeg seed inside and have a rough, flat grater on one end or in the middle. Throw that in your pocket and head off to a Punch party![8] Today nutmeg is principally grown in Indonesia and Grenada, where I have seen plantations of them for miles on end. It is a commodity too frequently used in powder form, and, again, significantly better when grated fresh. If I were dandy, I’d be that guy with a silver nutmeg grinder in my pocket (alongside my cell phone), putting fresh nutmeg on everything I see. Get yourself a grinder that works well for your bar, use it exclusively and never look back to pre-grated nutmeg powder.

Another approach to bringing the spice is revealed to us by Jeff “Beachbum” Berry in Potions of the Caribbean in the form of a “spice-infused water” (covering the roles of both “spice” and “weak”), duplicating a 17th-century Caribbean technique for extracting spice flavor and creating useful culinary infusion, including cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. His Father Labat’s Punch, shows a 1694 variation on this classic punch, and it is very tasty.[9] In a similar way to how “spice-infused water” serves as both the “weak” and “spice” ingredients, we know that the tea trade led to teas being incorporated into punch recipes, but not in Barbados.

The subject of the “weak” element can be a matter of interpretation. In modern bartending, we tend to get the water from a shake with ice, bringing three ounces of liquid up to five (or, “four parts”) before pouring over fresh ice in an individual serve. When batched for the bowl, we add the water assuming a large block of ice will give us proper chill and minimal dilution as we work our way to the bottom. So “weak” can be interpreted as water or a mix of water and juices, in more modern application.

In Barbados today, we do see variations of the classic Bajan Punch include ingredients like grenadine, passion fruit, pineapple or other fruit juices (a web search for “Barbados Punch” yields  versions, including pineapple juice in the mix; however, pineapples aren’t grow in Barbados and fresh fruit is actually rather hard to find). The likelihood of those ingredients being employed in the early days is slim given the lack of availability (or mention of them in print). Drinks evolve, everywhere, and today you are likely to get modern twists on this classic recipe either at a rum distillery itself or in a local bar. Who doesn’t want to make their drink stand out a little bit so they can claim some unique quality that peaks the competition meter? I encourage you to do the same.

Barbados, being one of the principal islands to commercialize (and drink) rum, seems like it should be the spiritual Caribbean home to Punch. I love this drink, and I think you will too. A simple Bajan Punch is a solid, easy recipe to keep in your back pocket and won’t fail you. This formula, alongside your version of a Planter’s makes for a nice one, two…um…punch, in demonstrating Caribbean Rum Punch variations.

Bajan Punch (also known as Barbados Rum Punch)

Version ONE: Based on “one of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak, a dash of bitters, sprinkle of spice” where one= 0.5 oz

 

  • 0.5 oz lime juice
  • 1oz simple syrup (simple syrup is good, but using sugar cane syrup or simple syrup made from a dark sugar is more flavorful – balance your sweet and sour as you like)
  • 1.5oz aged Bajan rum (depending on how much rum you want to taste, or how much alcohol you want to drink, you can adjust this up or down)
  • Dash or two dashes Angostura bitters
  • Nutmeg and a grater
  • Lime wheel

 

Shake well with a lot of ice and strain over fresh ice. (This should yield a dilution of ~2oz of water, or “4 of weak”.) Garnish with fresh grated nutmeg and a lime wheel.

 

Version TWO: The way I like it and serve it at Elixir. For my palate, this is well-balanced, rich and delicious.

 

  • 1 oz lime juice
  • 1oz simple syrup
  • 2oz aged Bajan rum (We use Mt. Gay or Four Square Port-Finished)
  • Two dashes Angostura bitters
  • Nutmeg and a grater
  • Lime wheel

 

Shake well with a lot of ice and strain over fresh ice. Garnish with fresh grated nutmeg and a lime wheel.

 

By H. Joseph Ehrmann
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Notes: 
 

[1] Jeffrey Morgenthaler, “There’s No Wrong Way To Make A Planter’s Punch”, Playboy.com, July 30, 2015, http://www.playboy.com/articles/no-wrong-way-to-make-a-planters-punch

[2] David Wondrich, Punch, 2010, p. 42

[3] Frederich H. Smith, Caribbean Rum, 2005, p.12

[4] Wondrich, p. 43

[5]David Watts, The West Indies, Patterns of Development, Cultural and Environmental Change since 1492, 1987, p. 161

[6] Ibid.

[7] http://liquor.com/recipes/barbados-rum-punch/

[8]Being a silly antique-seeker, after years of seeking, I finally found two examples of these graters, about 4 years ago, in an antique shop in Victoria, Canada. Unfortunately, the old guy behind the counter wanted over $700 for the cheaper of the two. I still regret not buying it to this day, as I have not come across another outside of eBay.

[9] Jeff Berry, Beachbum Berry’s Potions of the Caribbean, 2014, p. 49

 

 

 

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