Many people familiar with Caribbean cocktails often assume that “punch” as a libation refers exclusively to a modern take on the historic citrus based punches made by the plantocracy and served from a punch bowl. The reality is a bit more complicated. Punch very often refers to a range of milk based, creamy drinks that use diverse ingredients including fruits, beer, and thickeners like eggs or pumpkins. The most striking similarity across these milk punches is that they all use rum and condensed milk. Several of them could also be traced to beverage preparation traditions that originated in Europe.

For example, a rich egg punch called Ponche Creme from the southern Caribbean is a descendant of Sabayon which is a type of custard fortified with sweet wine and flavored with almonds or orange blossom water from the western Mediterranean. This beverage would have been familiar to some of the earliest Iberian explorers in the Caribbean and Latin America, but it was most likely brought to the region and popularized by Spanish Missionaries. Stout Punch, a beverage popular across the English-speaking Caribbean is also directly influenced by European traditions. The inspiration comes from Flip, which was once a popular beverage made with dark beer, rum, eggs, and sugar in North America and England that first became widespread during the late seventeenth century. When flip evolved into Stout Punch, the eggs and sugar were replaced by condensed milk. The beer of choice became Guinness Foreign Extra Stout, leading to stout punch often simply being referred to as Guinness Punch.

The popularity of Guinness in the Caribbean, and its use in Stout Punch is largely due to the influence of the Irish on drinking culture in the British West Indies. They existed in the region as both indentured servants, and as sailors on vessels that traveled between the Caribbean and North Atlantic ports like Glasgow and Boston. In addition to Stout Punch, they also introduced Irish Moss Punch or Sea Moss Punch.

Irish Moss Punch / Sea Moss Punch

Irish moss refers to one of the many varieties of red algae that are used for human consumption. This includes several species in the Florideophyceae class that turn into a thick gel when boiled. In Ireland, this type of algae was first harvested by Celtic tribes during the British Bronze Age, however, it rose in significance during the Irish Potato Famine that began in 1845. During this period, a fortified beverage of sea moss, milk, sugar, and spices was used in Ireland to combat nutritional deficiencies. This period also saw a massive exodus of people from Ireland, and the spread of their culinary culture to the places that they settled. One of these places was Scituate, a Massachusetts town said to be built on seaweed, and often dubbed as the most Irish town in America. Red algae was identified off the coast of this town in 1847 by Daniel Ward, an Irish immigrant who encouraged others to move to Massachusetts and begin harvesting the abundant sea moss found on the rocks there.

Chondrus crispus commonly called Irish Moss (Via Wikipedia)

Further south in the Caribbean, sea moss was also harvested and consumed in a creamy posset-style drink, either by the descendants of Irish indentured servants, or by Irish visitors to the islands. It’s unknown what the earliest drinks were like, but modern recipes for Sea Moss Punch call for sea moss gel, condensed milk, spices, and in some cases rum.

In the early days, harvesters would swim out to distant rocks, braving swift currents and strong waves to pluck the sea moss growing offshore. This is still done on the North Coast of Trinidad, in villages like Toco and Blanchichieuse. Locals there believe that sea moss growing in deeper water is more nutritious, particularly when harvested on the new moon. Once harvested, the seamoss is washed, dried, boiled and then allowed to cool into a thick gel that consists of agar and carrageenan. Sea moss gel is very nutritious, containing complex carbohydrates, amino acids, and several important minerals. It can also add thickness and stability to milk-based beverages.

In the 1980s, the government of Saint Lucia began developing methods of cultivating seamoss in the south-east part of the island. This was due to the decline of wild populations, and the growing demand for nutritional seamoss beverages like Supligen. Two decades later, during an expansion to their product line, the local rum company Saint Lucia Distillers would introduce a rum cream called Z Moss Booster made with sea moss, coconut, and ginseng. When this drink hit the market, it was unlike every other rum cream; not only because of the unique ingredient used, but also because it appealed to male drinkers instead of women who have always been the typical consumers of cream liqueurs.

Saint Lucia Distillers also turned to local mixology for their other rum cream called Nutz n Rum. This time, the inspiration was from a more popular drink called Peanut Punch.

Peanut Punch

Peanuts are native to South America, and have been used as food there for over 7000 years. They were also commonly eaten in the Caribbean, as historian Bartolome de las Casas identified peanuts among the food eaten by the natives of Hispaniola in 1502. It’s possible that a type of proto-peanut butter existed in the region long before the arrival of Europeans as a paste made with pounded peanuts was common in Central and South America since pre-Columbian times, and a solid type of peanut butter existed in Suriname from as early as 1783.

Peanut plants were transported to other parts of the world, and peanuts eventually became a part of African cuisine on both sides of the Atlantic. When slavery ended, former slave traders in West Africa began growing peanuts to meet the growing demand for peanut oil in Europe. Africans already had experience cultivating a crop that was similar to the peanut called the bambara groundnut, and the former supplanted the latter in economic and culinary importance since more oil could be extracted from it, and it had more flavor. Sharecroppers in the American south also started using the peanut plant to replenish soil that had been stripped of nutrients from decades of cotton monoculture. They already had experience with this crop as they often grew peanuts and black-eyed peas in their yards since the early days of slavery. In both Africa and North America, black cooks used peanut paste to marinate meat, thicken stews, and hold together sweet treats.

The Peanut Plant (Via Wikipedia)

By the time that modern peanut butter, and methods of mass producing it were developed at the end of the nineteenth century, peanut paste had already been a part of Caribbean cuisine for centuries. Peanut butter was promoted as a healthy source of protein that was easy to eat and affordable. It was perceived as similar to stout and sea moss, so it was incorporated into healthy milk beverages leading to the creation of Peanut Punch. This drink was traditionally made with a swizzle stick, but modern Peanut Punch recipes often rely on an electric blender instead.

It’s easy to find Peanut Punch in cans and cartons at any Caribbean grocery, and many children in the region actually prefer this drink to chocolate milk. For older drinkers, the punch vendor is a ubiquitous figure in many places with thriving nightlife. The most popular drink sold by these vendors is their Peanut Punch, often made with additives like Angostura Bitters, linseed oil, or a spoonful of sea moss gel. The widespread popularity of peanut punch is what led Saint Lucia Distillers to release Nutz’n Rum, a peanut based rum cream that could probably best be described as spiked Peanut Punch with spices.

When it comes to the Caribbean milk punches, Seamoss Punch and Peanut Punch are definitely the most popular. They’re the only ones to be made and sold on a large scale, and the only ones transformed into a rum cream.

There are however, many others that are less known but just as delicious. Soursop Punch is made with a creamy fruit that tastes like apple, strawberry, and banana. Barbadine Punch is made with a relative of passion fruit that is not as tart. There is even Channa Punch made with chickpeas, and Green Fig Punch made with unripe bananas.

While still relatively unexplored, there is a lot of potential in these drinks. Both in terms of meeting the demand for dairy free cream liqueurs, and for mixologists interested in understanding the Caribbean rum cocktails that exist outside of tourist enclaves.

Sea Moss Recipe, Peanut Punch Recipe, and other related Punch Recipes;

Peanut Punch Recipe

Soursop Punch Recipe

Sea Moss Punch Recipe

Channa Punch / Chickpea Punch