A Pilgrimage for the Ultimate Rum Punch Recipe

Rum Punch
Photo by Max Kelly / Styling Matt Vohr

The Oloffson Hotel, a Gothic, Wes Anderson-esque structure located high on a hill in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, is known for its rum punch.

Good luck getting the recipe.

I tried, taking an ill-advised taxi ride alone at sunrise through some of the sketchier parts of the city, racing against a 10:30 am pickup for the journey home. I had spent a restless night dreaming about that fruit-laden punch, and I couldn’t go home without at least trying to secure the recipe.

Of course, the bartender wasn’t there. “Come back later,” the clerk advised with a smile, unfazed by the peculiar early morning booze request.

The Oloffson has seen its share of peculiar things. Built in the late 19th century as a private mansion for the president of Haiti, it later became a military hospital and, eventually, a hotel/playground for the rich and famous.

The hotel passed from Walter Gustav Oloffson, the former sea captain who gave the gingerbread house-like building his name, to Roger Coster, a French photographer. In the 1950s, the hotel was known as the “Greenwich Village of the Tropics” for attracting an eccentric cast of actors, writers and artists, including author Graham Greene.

The Oloffson would be just another spooky luxury hotel were it not for the rum punch created by Joseph César, a Haitian barman who was at the Oloffson from almost the beginning.

César died in 1981, and with him, the recipe for the hotel’s “true” rum punch.

It was César’s rum punch that brought Greene to the hotel that he would immortalize in his 1966 novel (and later film), The Comedians. In the book, the Oloffson is transformed into the Trianon. Its barman, Joseph, based on César, makes “famous rum punches,” too.

César died in 1981, and with him, the recipe for the hotel’s “true” rum punch.

I tried to get the recipe—and I failed. I’m not alone. Rum luminary Jeff “Beachbum” Berry attempted to squeeze the recipe for the brightly hued punch from the Oloffson’s current owner, Richard Auguste Morse. (“It’s a world of secrets,” Morse insisted.)

Still, all is not lost. Two versions of the punch make the rounds today.

Oloffson’s Rum Punch

First, tiki guru Trader Vic published a recipe for “Olaffson’s Punch” [sic] in his 1946 bartending guide, advising that it be made with “fine Haitian brandy-type rum.”

Other rums may have been available in César’s day, but today, that leads a straight path to Barbancourt, a distillery located close to the Oloffson, in Petiotville, so at least that much about the recipe is clear. Berry published a variation on Vic’s punch in his book, Potions of the Caribbean.

Option No. 2 is “César’s Punch,” a grenadine-spiked variation that originally appeared in Playboy in 1973, and which seems to be the go-to resource for most of the subsequent articles about the Oloffson.

Once home, I mixed up both variations, and downloaded the film version of The Comedians. At the first mention of rum punch, I raised mine in tribute, a glass in each hand, and that didn’t feel peculiar at all.

Published on December 9, 2015
Topics: Cocktail RecipesGlobal Travel