Because Charleston was once home to the opulent Planter's Hotel, and because the city's summer weather calls for iced drinks of rum and citrus, it's widely believed that Planter's Punch originated here. "Charleston's famed Planter's Punch was first introduced here," declares Charleston Stage's online history of the Dock Street Theater, rebuilt on the site of the once-grand hotel.
The claim has been repeatedly debunked, most forcefully by Robert F. Moss in a 2011 City Paper story, but it's never gone away. Even if Charlestonians didn't have a hand in developing Planter's Punch, they're sufficiently fond of the cocktail category to call it their own.
"Planter's Punch goes back to the 1830s, maybe even earlier," Southern food chronicler Eugene Walter wrote in a collection of cocktail recipes, posthumously published by The University of North Carolina Press. "It started out as first-quality rum blended with lemon or lime juice, but now there are literally hundreds of versions."
Wayne Curtis, author of "And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails," speculates that the first Planter's Punches were mixed in the Caribbean.
In the 17th century, British settlers along the coast of India began stirring tea, lemon, sugar and water into fermented palm sap liquor to make it more palatable; the resulting punch was rapidly translated for other ports. Curtis quotes Father Labat, who in 1694 recorded a Barbadian punch of rum, water, sugar, lemon, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove.
The punch apparently traveled back to Europe, since a columnist for American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine in 1831 reported he'd received a similar recipe in Glasgow: "A wine-glass nearly full of the best refined lump sugar pounded/ Twelve ditto of cold spring water/ A lime, and half a lemon/ Two wine glasses brimful of old Jamaican rum."
According to the article, titled "General Advice for the Health and Comfort of the Young Sportsman," the drink is "so cooling, and grateful to the thirst, that the more he drinks, the more he requires of it. I name this as a caution to the unwary."
It's not clear exactly when the punch migrated into a cocktail glass, or when it acquired the permanent name "Planter's." Moss turned up a recipe for Planter's Punch in an 1878 issue of the London magazine Fun, but it was still being made in crowd-sized proportions. One of the earliest references to a single-serving Planter's Punch came in 1906, when The Washington Post recommended a "Planter's Punch," as "one of the simplest concoctions in the world, and just the thing for hot weather."
"First a strong limeade is made with plain water, and poured into a highball glass with plenty of ice," the writer explained, attributing the preparation to the tropics. "Enough of the rum is put in to suit, usually about two fingers."
H.L. Mencken drank Planter's Punch during a 1900 trip to Jamaica (Curtis credits Kingston's Myrtle Bank Hotel, where Mencken stayed, with standardizing the drink recipe), but most Americans weren't aware of the drink until the 1930s. It became hugely popular, especially with Tallulah Bankhead. When the screen star died in 1968, Time Magazine remembered, "she was known to romp around her apartment in the nude drinking Planter's Punch."
Peninsula Grill, located in the Planters Inn, is one of many local bars which now offer Planter's Punch. Customers are requested to keep their clothes on.