It is often claimed that Planter's Punch was created right here in Charleston. The potent concoction of rum, sugar, and citrus was the specialty of the house at the Planters Hotel in the 19th century, and it went on from there to gain national fame. Or so the story goes. Unfortunately, it's not true.
The Planters Hotel was indeed a famous antebellum establishment. It opened in 1809, when Alexander Calder converted the old Dock Street Theatre into a hotel, and it became the favorite resort for rice planters when they came into the city for the winter. The hotel was well known for its imbibing clientèle: a British visitor who stayed there in the 1830s noted that during dinner "very little wine is drank, and rather too much brandy." But there's not a shred of evidence that its bar ever served a beverage called Planter's Punch. That association seems to have been made in recent years based solely on the name of the hotel itself.
Planter's Punch actually originated on the rum-producing island of Jamaica. Cocktail historians, including Wayne Curtis in his rum history And a Bottle of Rum (2009), have traced Planter's Punch back to a recipe published in The New York Times in 1908. I've been able to take it back even further. In September 1878, the London magazine Fun ran instructions in verse for creating "Planter's Punch! A West Indian Recipe:"
A wine-glass with lemon juice fill, of sugar the same glass fill twice
Then rub them together until
The mixture looks smooth, soft, and nice.
Of rum then three wine glasses add,
And four of cold water please take. A Drink then you'll have that's not bad —
At least, so they say in Jamaica.
For some reason, Planter's Punch has always lent itself to a recipe in verse, but no two authors ever seem to use the same ratios. By 1903, the Kansas City Star had distilled the ditty down to four lines: "One of sour / One of sweet / Two of strong / And one of weak." The editor explained this as the juice of one lime, one spoon of sugar, two tablespoons of old Jamaica rum, and one of ice water. The 1908 New York Times recipe cited by Curtis and other cocktail historians was a little closer to the original 1-2-3-4 proportions, but with some ingredients reversed:
Take two of sour (lime let it be)
To one and a half of sweet.
Of Old Jamaica pour three strong,
And add four parts of weak.
Through Prohibition, recipes for Planter's Punch were pretty consistent in ingredients even if the rhymes and ratios varied greatly, and it seems to have remained a Jamaican specialty. After the repeal, when high-quality rum was available once again in the United States, Planter's Punch became trendy, part of a tropical drink fad that brought into fashion such rum-based concoctions as the daiquiri and the rum Collins. It was so popular that Fred L. Myers and Son produced a brand called "Myers Planter's Punch" rum.
As late as the 1940s, a typical Planter's Punch recipe called for just rum, lime juice, sugar, and water, but sliced fruit like oranges and pineapples were often included either as garnish or in the drink itself. Soon those slices of fruit were replaced by various citrus juices, including pineapple, orange, and grapefruit.
We may not have created Planter's Punch here in Charleston, but it's certainly a fitting cocktail for this city. Long before Charlestonians had heard of sweet tea vodka or Grand Marnier shooters, they were drinking rum, most often in the form of a punch.
"Madeira wine and punch are the common drinks of the inhabitant," a visitor to the city wrote in 1763. Charlestonians of all social ranks flocked to punch houses in the 18th century for their favorite tipple, and potent concoctions of rum, sugar, and fruit juices were essential components of any party, ball, or social gathering well into the 20th century. More than anything, it's a perfect cooling drink for our semi-tropical climate.
The trendiness of Planter's Punch faded around World War II, but you can still find it on the cocktail menus of a few places around town. At Fleet Landing, they blend dark and light rum with pineapple, orange, cranberry, and lime juices and serve it in a big pint glass with a garnish of orange, lemon, and lime slices, plus a maraschino cherry for good measure. It's a stout drink, but, as has been the case for centuries, those citrus juices help cut the bite of the rum and make it go down smooth.
Perhaps most noteworthy is the version at the Peninsula Grill, which is a part of the Planters Inn. There's no actual link between this Inn and the old Planters Hotel. The 19th century version was severely damaged during the Civil War, and, though repaired and reopened, it never regained its former stature and closed for good around the turn of the 20th century. The building was restored by the Works Progress Administration and became the Dock Street Theatre again in the 1930s. The present-day Planters Inn was opened in the 1980s in a restored building that once housed a retail store.
The Peninsula Grill may not have a direct link to the old Planters Hotel, but it still serves an excellent Planter's Punch. The bartender first pours Myers dark rum in a tall, straight glass filled with ice then adds orange and pineapple juice from two bottles and finally a drizzle of grenadine. A silver cup is clamped over the top of the glass for a quick shake, then it's served to you garnished with a cherry and orange slice on a clear plastic skewer. It's a good solid drink that tastes like a fruit juice drink and not something loaded up with a lot of rum.
My favorite local version, though, is the Carolina Punch over at Anson, which takes the Planter's Punch recipe and, in honor of our city's favorite shooter, adds a little Grand Marnier, which I think gives it a splendid local twist. The punch has a deep orange-red color and is served on the rocks with a quarter orange slice, a creamy and delicious treat.
Applying such variations to Planter's Punch is the natural thing to do. Wayne Curtis did his best to pin down a "standard" recipe but ended up concluding that "Planter's Punch is a class of drink rather than a single cocktail, with hundreds of variations floating around, and more invented daily." Looking into the subject in 1936, Jane Cobb of The New York Times concluded the same thing, advising, "The sensible thing to do is to drink slowly and stop fussing."
And that seems like splendid advice for cocktail hour on a warm Charleston evening.
• 1 oz. white rum
• 1 oz. dark rum (Myers)
• 1 oz. fresh squeezed orange juice
• 1 oz. pineapple juice
• 1 oz. pomegranate juice
• Dash of grenadine
Combine the rums, juices, and grenadine with ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake vigorously until blended, then pour into a Collins glass. Garnish with a cherry and a slice of orange, and more fruit if the mood strikes you.