There are many names for this version of rum, citrus and sugar: “Planter’s Cocktail,” “Jamaican Rum Punch,” and most commonly, Planter’s Punch.

Planter’s Punch is more of a drink category than a single recipe. In its simplest form—rum, sugar, lime (or lemon), water, perhaps some tea, and spice or bitters—it is clearly the direct descendant of the classic rum punches of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

History suggests that the name “Planter’s Punch” didn’t appear until late in the nineteenth century, with the start of Caribbean tourism; the various island hotels that sprang up to serve the well-to-do traveller needed to serve a drink that had a nice, upscale ring to it. What until then had been simply “punch” provided a perfect opportunity, and “Planter’s Punch” became the ubiquitous hotel beverage.

Planter’s Punch in its modern form is often associated with Jamaica, since it was there that the first great tourist hotels, Kingston’s Myrtle Beach and Port Antonio’s Titchfield, were operated by United Fruit Company, inventors of what would soon be known as “banana republics.”

But Planter’s Punch wasn’t limited just to Jamaica. As Jeff Berry points out in his excellent Potions of the Caribbean, classic punch stylings were regional. The punches of each island or plantation area reflected the products locally available, and often included other interesting things, like tea or wines, that could be imported from their parent empires. “Planter’s Punch” followed the same model.

(Berry’s Potions of the Caribbean is a delightful read for anyone interested in the history of the Caribbean rum zone, or the back stories of our most famous rum drinks and their inventors. Conrad Hilton, Trader Vic, Don the Beachcomber, “Sloppy Joe” Jose Otero and Joe Scialom are all there; so, too, the stories of the Zombie, the Mai Tai, the Daiquiri, the Suffering Bastard, and the infamous Piña Colada.)

The simpler Planter’s Punches are very simple affairs indeed, classic seventeenth and eighteenth century punches. Local rum, citrus, sugar and water or tea, with perhaps a bit of Bermuda nutmeg grated over the top.

In its more ornate expressions, Planter’s Punch included embellishments like fruit jellies and wines. These more imaginative punches were harbingers of the post-Prohibiition tiki fashion—multiple rums, multiple tropical juices, even multiple sweeteners. A perfect setup for Don the Beachcomber.

Planter’s Punch is all over the map as far as strength and proportions are concerned. The punch craft has always had sayings like “One of Sour, Two of Sweet, Four of Strong, Twenty of Weak.” That very dilute formula gradually evolved to “One of Sour, Two of Sweet, Four of Strong, Eight of Weak.”

In the twentieth century, we finally saw “One of Sour, Two of Sweet, Three of Strong, Four of Weak;” then “One of Sweet, Two of Sour, Three of Weak, Four of Strong” (this from Myers and Son Rum Company). Quite a progression, but it does suggest that you can make Planter’s Punch at any strength that pleases you, and helps to explain all the variants that have shown up in bar manuals over the decades.

Planter's Punch, photo © 2014 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
Planter’s Punch

The simpler (and stronger) type of Planter’s Punch is exemplified by this version adapted from David Embury’s The Fine Art of Making Drinks (1948):

Planter’s Punch (Embury)

  • 2 oz dark Jamaican rum (Myers’s, Smith and Cross)
  • 1 oz lemon juice
  • ½–¾ oz simple syrup
  • 2–3 dashes Angostura bitters

Shake vigorously and pour, without straining, into a Collins glass. Pack glass to top with crushed ice, and top up with soda water. Churn with a spoon (or swizzle) until the glass starts to frost up. Garnish with fruit as desired; serve with straws.

Very simple, sort of a dark rum version of the classic Daiquiri, but with the addition of bitters. And, of course, the traditional crushed ice presentation.

Jeff Berry provides a similar, but more intriguing, version in Potions. It’s a mashup of a 1920s recipe from Fred Myers (of Myers and Son Rum) and a 1957 recommendation from A. R. Woolley (of Lemon Hart Rum) to revive the use of black tea in punches. This one is my favorite:

Planter’s Punch (Improved)
Jeff Berry, attrib. Fred Myers (1920s) and A. R. Woolley (1957)

  • 2 oz dark Jamaican rum (Myers’s)
  • 1½ oz black tea, chilled
  • 1 oz fresh lime juice
  • ½ oz white sugar (¾ oz simple syrup)

Dissolve sugar in lime juice at bottom of a tall glass. Add tea and rum, fill with crushed ice and swizzle. The ice will settle after swizzling, so add more to fill. Garnish as you see fit (I recommend a dusting of nutmeg.)

This version is simple and elegant at the same time. I had never used tea in a cocktail before I came across this formula, and so I was surprised at how well rum and black tea combine. It seems to mediate between the rum and the lime, complementing both and helping to tie the flavors together.

I have seen Planter’s Punches with all sorts of exotic garnishes—it did evolve into a tiki drink, after all, with a fancy mug, lots of fruit and greenery sticking out the top. I prefer a simple dusting of nutmeg; it doesn’t look as exotic, but it gives Planter’s Punch a wonderful nose, and is certainly a classic punch garnish.

But speaking of tiki: In 1937, Donn Beach tried his hand at Planter’s Punch, and with considerable ingenuity. Chanelling the punch stylings of the early Caribbean sugar planters, with their blended rums and embellished sweeteners, Don the Beachcomber began serving his version of their drink, this time with a ginger note (falernum) and a dose of Angostura bitters. And there was his special insight, the use of the blender…

Planter’s Punch
Don the Beachcomber, 1937, via Beachbum Berry Remixed
  • ½ oz fresh lime juice
  • ½ oz sugar syrup
  • ½ oz gold Jamaican rum (Appleton 12)
  • ½ oz dark Jamaican rum (Myers’s)
  • 1 oz gold Virgin Islands rum
  • ½ tsp grenadine (home made)
  • ½ tsp falernum (Fee’s)
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 6 oz crushed ice

Put everything in a blender. Blend at high speed for no more than 5 seconds. Pour unstrained into a tall glass. If necessary, add ice to fill the glass. (Optionally, garnish with grated nutmeg.)

This is my other favorite (I think it’s the ginger…)

Compared to the previous version, the Beachcomber’s is sweeter and spicier—the effect of the gingery falernum. (I “accidentally” discovered that I really like a little extra falernum—one day, distracted, I put in a half ounce instead of a half teaspoon; it was much more spicy, and very, very good.)

It is also very, very cold. The flash-mixing with the blender will frost your glass in no time. And it takes a long time to drink this version—the blendered ice will freeze your drinking straw closed if you leave it buried in the punch. This is a punch that is well served by a float of Lemon Hart 151 over the top of the crushed ice, to boost it a bit as the ice melts and dilutes the drink over time.

(As my high school physics teacher said, “The laws of physics always prevail. The laws of physics always prevail.” (He always repeated it like that when he said it. And I have never forgotten it.)

I usually just double up the Jamaican rum instead of including the Virgin Islands rum specified in the recipe. It’s not that I have anything against V.I. rums, I just happen to like Jamaican. And I don’t have a lot of storage space for more rums in the pantry. But it’s an interesting idea, and typical of Donn Beach: V.I. rum is a lighter style than Jamaican, and would lighten the flavor of the drink a bit, compared to all-Jamaican rums.

(My guess is that the most widely distributed V.I. rum in the United States is Cruzan; it was certainly available in the 1930s, but I don’t know what rum Donn Beach used in this drink.)

There seems to be an endless list of Planter’s Punch variations, too many to list here. It is a fine opportunity for experimentation, for developing a “house style.” These punches run the gamut from simple, rum-heavy Daiquiri-like mixes to fruity and ornate, even baroque, tiki stylings. So pick your style and dive in to one of the Caribbean’s original cocktail. It’s hard to go far wrong.