The Planter's Punch is one of the oldest rum cocktails, a classic combination of rum, lime juice and sugar that dates back to 18th-century Jamaica. There the drink was originally made according to a recipe with the rhythm of a nursery rhyme: "One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak." (That would be: lime juice, sugar, rum, and water.)
The first recorded appearance of Planter's Punch in the United States was in a New York Times article from 1908. (They ran a gussied up version of the traditional Jamaican ditty.) Although punches of all sorts had been very popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, it's hard to determine how popular the drink was by the 1900s. Rum-based cocktails in general tended to find little favor with most of the public.
After Prohibition ended, however, things began to change. The great Donn Beach had discovered Planter's Punch during his travels and brought it back to the States with him. When he opened his first Tiki bar/restaurant in 1934, not only was the drink on the menu, it also served as the inspiration for many of the other rum concoctions he invented. As the Tiki craze grew in popularity, so did the thirst for Planter's Punch.
There are as many recipes for this drink as there are bartenders and cocktail books. Some have lime or lemon juice; some have pineapple or orange juice (or a combination of all four). Some have light rum, gold rum, dark rum or all three. They often have grenadine, and some add triple sec or orange Curaçao. I even have a recipe that calls for crème de cacao. (I don't think I'll be trying that one.)
Don the Beachcomber served at least five different versions of Planter's Punch. His most popular recipe called for three different types of rum, lime juice, simple syrup, grenadine, falernum and Angostura bitters. This makes a very good drink, but I was looking for something a little simpler.
In The Gentleman's Companion (1939), Charles H. Baker Jr.'s story of his spirituous travels around the world, the author discusses ten different methods for making Planter's Punch. He pronounces all of them excellent, but advises, "Get decent well-aged rum...[And] don't try to use canned fruit juices of any kind." Solid advice for this, or any, cocktail.
Most of Baker's recipes are variations on the basic theme, although some of them call for Cognac or bourbon, which I don't think would work very well at all. (I didn't even try it.) He piqued my interest, though, with his suggestion of using grapefruit juice.
As Wayne Curtis points out in his excellent And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the World in Ten Cocktails, Planter's Punch is less a specific drink than it is a class of drinks, and that's a good way to think of it. This is a cocktail that cries out for experimentation. It's like a melody that a jazz musician can take and improvise on -- based on such a solid foundation, there are unlimited directions in which it can go.
So that's what I did, trying out several different variations in an attempt to come up with a cocktail that tastes great, but doesn't require too many ingredients or too much work to make. The recipe I've settled on (for now, anyway) has quickly become a favorite in our house.
2 oz Rum
1 oz Grapefruit Juice
1/2 oz Lime Juice
1 oz Grenadine
1 tbsp Sugar Cane Syrup
1/2 oz 151 Rum (optional)
Shake all the ingredients (except 151 Rum) with ice until well-chilled. Strain into an ice-filled Collins glass, or use something pretty if you've got it. Float the 151 Rum on top.
If you don't have cane syrup, you can use regular simple syrup, although the cane syrup gives it a richer flavor. Try to find some decent grenadine -- Rose's should only be used in an emergency.
You can use whatever type of rum you have on hand, although it's going to change the flavor of the drink quite a bit depending on what you use. I prefer a gold or dark Jamaican rum, like Appleton or Myers's.
Recently I made a batch with Pyrat XO Reserve Rum and it was delicious. (This makes sense, as the Pyrat XO Reserve has more than a hint of orange flavor to it.) My wife had a Planter's Punch at the Columbia Room that Derek Brown mixed up for her with Banks 5 Island Rum and it was amazing.
The 151 Rum float gives the drink a nice kick and a delicious accent of burnt caramel. If you'd like a lighter cocktail, however, you can omit it and the drink is still a delight.
So the next time you feel like trying something new, mix up a Planter's Punch and put your own twist on it -- and then share the results with the rest of us.