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Rhum takes a punch

Jordan Mackay | October 19, 2011 | Story Wine and Spirits

With a purity and articulation that match the clean lines of the space, the cocktails mixed behind the fine-grained wood counter at Bar Agricole are some of the city’s best. And though many drinkers are drawn to the more complex items, like the Mary Pickford (white rum, pineapple gum, grenadine, maraska, and lime), it’s the simplest cocktail on the menu that’s the foundation of the entire operation.

I’m referring to the Ti Punch, the one drink that Bar Agricole’s co-owner Thad Vogler says he’ll never take off the menu. Simplicity is an underrated quality in cocktails these days, and nothing is simpler than Ti Punch, a combination of cane syrup, rhum agricole, and lime peel. Its presentation is underwhelming, but its power and complexity are exceptional.

To appreciate Ti Punch, one must understand rhum agricole. The h in rhum agricole identifies the spirit as originating in the French West Indies. It differs from rum in that it’s distilled seasonally (in wonderfully archaic, steam-powered distilleries) from sugarcane juice, as opposed to molasses. Because fresh cane juice ferments almost immediately, rhum made from it must be seasonal and local.

“I fell deeply in love with rhum agricole for its flavor, but also because the way it’s made prioritizes the things I believe in,” says Vogler. “It’s an agriculturally driven spirit. It has terroir.”

Fresh pressing makes for a complex, vibrant liquor distinctive for its herbal note, which comes from the sugarcane, a species of grass. That subtle grassy flavor makes rhum agricole a lousy mixer (it doesn’t really work in a mojito or a daiquiri, for instance). It’s best enjoyed in a cocktail like this simple Ti Punch.

“When you go to Martinique, it’s what everybody drinks—the wealthy and the poor,” says Vogler. “Through one drink, you’re connected to a culture and a history. Only a few cocktails in the world do this as forcefully.”

Ti Punch (short for petit punch) is usually enjoyed there as an aperitif sipped languorously as the sky turns purple and the sun dips into the Caribbean. Bartenders often invite guests to prepare their own Ti Punch to taste. It’s a ritual summed up by the motto “Chacun prĂ©pare sa propre mort,” which translates to “Each prepares his own death.”

To make Ti Punch, simply pour a puddle of Martinique cane syrup (or substitute a teaspoon
or two of raw sugar) into a small tumbler. (More syrup makes for a milder drink.) Add a couple of ounces of rhum agricole (I prefer the white), then stir it all together. The final step is the twist, in this case a little disk of peel cut from the side of a lime. Squeeze it over the drink and drop it in. Ice is optional.

Mixing the drink is part of the pleasure, and to that end, Vogler has begun tableside Ti Punch service at Bar Agricole, where guests are presented with a variety of rhums, a bottle of syrup, and small bowls of ice and limes. We may each be preparing our own end, but death has never tasted better.

Get punchy
Make Ti Punch with either white or aged rhum (though white is the most common and, I think, the most appropriate). Here are a few of my favorites.
Rhum Neisson Gorgeously perfumed with hints of orange, banana, and reed, with a dense cane-sugar finish. $36 at Cask, 17 3rd St., S.F., 415-281-6486

Rhum J.M Pleasingly full-bodied, with an interplay of tropical and grassy flavors with rich vanilla. $42 at Cask, 17 3rd St., S.F., 415-281-6486

La Favorite High-toned aromas of cane, citrus, and leaves are carried in a spirit that’s pleasantly austere and raw. $29.99 at K&L Wine Merchants, 638 4th St., S.F., 415-896-1734

You’ll also need pure cane syrup. The ones from Martinique not only are the most flavorful sweeteners but also dissolve easily. I like Petite Canne. $10.99 at K&L Wine Merchants, 638 4th St., S.F., 415-896-1734


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