Stroll through the cheerfully-painted stalls and stands lining the streets of Oistins Fish Fry during the day, and it’s a dichotomy of bustling preparation for the evening’s onslaught and a quiet calm-before-the-storm devoid of the energy that’ll overtake the space when the sun goes down. Staff hose down picnic tables, seafood and produce purveyors haul deliveries from the back of trucks, and cooks and employees ready the ingredients for dishes and drinks listed on unassuming handwritten menus.
But the food and beverage hub in the town on Barbados’ southern coast really comes alive at night, especially on weekends, when street performers dance and lip sync to Michael Jackson, patrons spill out of bars and perform karaoke on the sidewalks, and locals and tourists order grilled or fried snapper, marlin and kingfish and macaroni pies, all washed down with rum punch served in plastic cups.
Ask any of the owners or order takers at Oistins what goes into this ubiquitous island elixir, however, and you’ll get wildly different opinions—and often, a tight-lipped response. At Pat’s Place, voted one of the best places to eat in Oistins, rum punch is made from an undisclosed secret recipe, and sold in small ($8) and large ($12) pours. Ditto for Annie’s, which offers a 9-oz. cupful for $10; the only thing they will say that its base is Mount Gay Eclipse Rum, produced on Barbados at the world’s oldest rum distillery.
A ten-minute drive to Braddie’s Bar on the outskirts of St. Lawrence Gap leads to a bit more information. Braddie’s, a veritable institution for locals and a top tourist destination, is one of the many so-called “rum shops” on the island. Like a cross between a Barbadian bodega, liquor shop and a bar, it’s where you can catch up with neighbors, grab a few pantry necessities or a bottle of rum to go, and wash down local specialties like pudding and souse (essentially pickled chunks of pork topped with a tangy chimichurri-like sauce) with sweet, bright orange-hued rum punch. Here, staff mixes Mount Gay Eclipse with simple syrup and lemon juice, served in a Hurricane glass over ice and topped with ginger beer and freshly grated nutmeg. The libation’s sweetness is tempered by the kick of ginger.
That freshly grated nutmeg and an overall balance of flavor are the most important components of rum punch says Dawn, a cook at Cutter’s Bajan Deli in Saint Philip Parish. The bright yellow-painted deli and general store is owned and operated by Roger Goddard, an expat from San Francisco who created the recipe for a VSRP (Very Special Rum Punch.) The ratio, she said during her pre-lunch prep one sunny morning, is one part sour (generally, lime juice), two parts sweet (simple syrup), three parts rum (Cutter’s uses Cockspur Old Gold Rum) and a few dashes of Angostura Bitters, garnished with nutmeg. It’s batched ahead of time and garnished à la minute, allowing it to both gain flavor and making it easy to serve during busy times. (And if you fall in love with their version, Cutter’s sells it already bottled.)
Jamaal Bowen, founder and director of TopShelf Bartending Academy which trains bar professionals on the island, also agrees that a great rum punch must be balanced. “It must not be too sweet, too strong or too acidic,” he says. His recipe starts with Doorly’s XO or Foursquare Spiced Rum, shaken with lime juice, simple syrup, Angostura Bitters and Angostura Orange Bitters, garnished with more bitters, freshly grated nutmeg, an orange slice and a cherry. His restrained use of simple syrup lets the tart and tangy lime better shine through, while his ample shake of the bitters bottles offsets the sweetness, adds layered notes, and nicely mingles with the complex brown sugar, caramel and spice notes of an aged rum. Sometimes he replaces the fruit with “no-waste” garnishes in the form of cherry tincture with orange caviar pearls, served on a reusable, rustic garnish spoon.
The challenge with rum punch, Bowen explains, is getting people accustomed to sugary or overly boozy drinks to understand that punch doesn’t need to have, well, a punch. Its original intention years ago, after all, was to mask the flavor of poorly made rum. Today, that’s all changed, as lots of fantastic molasses-based spirits are made on the island, at Mount Gay, Foursquare and St. Nicholas Abbey. Regardless, “the four main ingredients are on show and you must be able to taste each of them in unison [and] in full harmony.”
Speaking of St. Nicholas Abbey, their white rum comes with both a spice grater and the recipe for a batched rum punch attached to the neck of the bottle. It stays pretty true to the standard, with the addition of orange juice and a cinnamon stick garnish. Ditto for the bar and restaurant at Treasure Beach. Anthony Hoyte, a bartender at the adults-only boutique resort right on the beach (it was rebranded and opened late last year), thinks Mount Gay Rum is the secret behind a well-made rum punch. “It’s aged to perfection and blends smoothly with the other ingredients.”
But the question remains: Who makes the best rum punch on Barbados? “This will always spark debate,” Bowen says. “Let’s take a trip around the island and drink rum punch until we find our favorite. Are you game?”
Um, in the words of the island’s famous native daughter Rihanna, “Everybody putcha glasses up and I drink to that.”
Recipe courtesy of Jamaal Bowen, founder and director of TopShelf Bartending Academy, Barbados
- 1 ½ oz. Doorly’s XO or Foursquare Spiced Rum
- 1 ½ oz. Lime juice
- ¾ oz. Simple syrup
- 6-10 dashes Angostura Bitters (2-4 reserved for garnish)
- 2 dashes Angostura Orange Bitters
- Freshly grated nutmeg to garnish
- Orange slice and a cherry to garnish
Add the rum, lime juice, simple syrup, 6 dashes of Angostura Bitters and the orange bitters to a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake until well chilled. Strain into a glass over fresh ice. Garnish with 2 to 4 additional dashes of Angostura Bitters, the orange slice and the cherry.
St. Nicholas Abbey Rum Punch
Recipe courtesy of St. Nicholas Abbey, Saint Peter, Barbados
- 1 c. Lime juice
- 1 c. Orange juice
- 2 c. Simple syrup
- 3 c. St. Nicholas Abbey White Rum
- 1 Tbsp. Angostura Bitters
- Grated nutmeg to garnish
- Cinnamon sticks to garnish (optional)
Combine the first five ingredients in a large pitcher or punch bowl with ice. To serve, pour into a glass over fresh ice and garnish with the cinnamon stick (if desired) and freshly grated nutmeg.
Cutter’s Rum Punch
Recipe courtesy of Cutter’s Bajan Deli, Saint Philip Parish, Barbados
- 1 oz. Lime juice
- 2 oz. Simple syrup (or to taste)
- 3 oz. Cockspur Old Gold Rum
- 2 dashes Angostura Bitters
- Grated nutmeg to garnish
Add the first four ingredients to a cocktail shaker, add ice, and shake until well chilled. Strain into a glass over ice and garnish with freshly grated nutmeg.
Treasure Beach Rum Punch
Recipe courtesy of Treasure Beach, Paynes Bay, Barbados
- 1 oz. freshly squeezed lime juice
- 2 oz. simple syrup
- 3 oz. dark Caribbean rum (the older, the better)
- 4 oz. water
- Dash Angostura Bitters
- Freshly grated nutmeg, for garnish
Mix together the first five ingredients, serve over ice garnished with freshly grated nutmeg.
Kelly Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits and lifestyle writer, and wine educator, in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter and Instagram @kmagyarics.