Tourists who step out of their plane at a steamy Caribbean airport still dressed in Northern winter clothes invariably feel hot and sticky. Fortunately, two reliable cures await them. The first is a swim, which for maximum effect should be taken within one hour of arrival. The second is a cooling, energy-restoring rum drink.
There is something about rum that is magical. It combats heat in the tropics and cold in northern regions. Planter’s punches and hot toddies are completely different except that they both are built on rum, but that similarity is enough to make them both great restoratives. In the Caribbean, the original home of rum, the liquor comes in endless surprising varieties. The Scotch, gin or bourbon drinker, accustomed to the subtle (and sometimes imagined) differences among various brands of his favorite spirit, is amazed to discover that not only that there are hundreds of different kinds of rum—most of them never encountered in the United States—but that by and large they taste noticeably different from one another. The casual drinker quickly becomes fond of the many mixed drinks made with the islands’ rums, while even the connoisseur is delighted to find rums that are so mellow and smooth that, like cognac, they can be sipped neat. Both types of imbiber, impelled perhaps by the high cost of whiskeys and gins, quickly learn in the land of rum to drink and enjoy the local specialty.
Not only does every major island have its own rums and varieties of rum, but every island has its own flavored rum drinks. Planter’s punch, a drink that people innocent in Caribbean ways often assume to be the name of a specific drink, can be anything that makes use of both rum and fruit juice. Nowadays, the rum can be light or dark, but the traditional rum for planter’s punch is dark. Any kind of fruit juice can be used, from the exotic guava and mango to the more common pineapple and orange.
A cousin of planter’s punch is the classic Martinican drink called petit punch, which usually comes out sounding something like “tee-paunsh.” It can be made with either light or dark aged rum but it’s diluted by only two things, a bit of fresh lime juice and sirop, a heavy cane sugar concentrate that smells of the cane fields.
Very similar to the petit punch in basic ingredients but quite different in concept is the Daiquiri, one of the most popular rum drinks in the United States. The Daiquiri uses lime juice, sugar and rum, each in a greater amount than the last, but then it is shaken and strained through cracked ice.
If petit punch and the Daiquiri are first cousins of planter’s punch in its original form, the drink that is now commonly called planter’s punch seems almost to be no relation at all. You cannot be sure what you will get when you order a planter’s punch nowadays. Some recipes call for both light and dark. Some even call for three rums, light, medium and dark. Island-made liqueurs or Angostura bitters from Trinidad may be added. Grenadine, spices, coconut cream, fruit juice and raw fruit often make the punch seem more like a salad than a drink. Since rum combines well with many flavors and since in every man there is apparently a bit of inventiveness, new rum drinks are devised by the hundreds each year.
For 32 gallons of rum, you need one short ton of sugar. For one short ton of sugar, about 10 tons of sugar cane. And for 10 tons of sugar cane, almost one acre of prime plantation land. That, in brief, is the equation that helps explain the green forests of spiky cane that cover so much of the West Indies. Some of the cane goes to make small children happy; and much of it, of course, goes into sugar. But millions of acres of cane go into the ocean of rum produced each year in the Caribbean—the dry Cuban and Puerto Rican varieties; the darker Barbadian and Martinican potions; the heavy Jamaican and Guyanese. All rum, whether distilled from cane juice or molasses, comes from cane. And connoisseurs everywhere acclaim it as the noblest of cane’s contributions.