The problem with poncha is not in finding it, but rather getting home after drinking it. A mix of rum, citrus juice and sugar (or honey) that’s been “whipped” until frothy with a wooden tool akin to a muddler, poncha is a staple on Madeira, a mountainous island off the northwestern coast of Africa. The most traditional poncha bars tend to be perched on steep hillsides at the edge of impossibly winding roads. If you drink two—an easy feat, since they go down effortlessly—the one-lane switchbacks at the edge of precipitous cliffs over the Atlantic Ocean suddenly seem all the more precarious.
Poncha has its roots in this challenging landscape. The Portuguese claimed Madeira in 1419, and introduced sugar cane to the island shortly after colonization. Within a few decades, Madeira was the most important source of sugar in the world. Though sugar production ultimately shifted to Brazil, sugar cane stuck on Madeira, and today the island is home to a host of food and drinks that revolve around the plant. Six engenhos, sugar processing mills and distilleries, can still be found there, and today Madeira is the only place in Europe where rhum agricole (rum distilled from sugar cane juice rather than molasses) is produced.
Though it remains unclear who first decided to combine rum, citrus juice and sugar on Madeira to make poncha, it was likely an early colonial development. “We know that citrus fruits started to be included on ships from the 16th and 17th centuries, when a cure for scurvy was discovered,” explains Teresa Vivas, a Portuguese food writer and researcher occasionally based in Madeira. “It’s precisely during the 15th and 16th centuries that Madeira became a large producer of sugar. From there to mixing it with rum, also produced on the island during that time, it seems a short path.” Despite its early roots, she explains that poncha wasn’t commonplace until the 20th century, and didn’t become as widespread as it is now until around 30 years ago.
At A Venda do André, a poncha bar dating back to the 1950s that clings to the edge of one of those winding mountain roads, handsome wooden cabinets line the walls. Antique packages, an old-timey scale and retro liquor advertisements speak to the space’s former life. “One part was the shop, the other was a bar,” says manager Ilda Marques, explaining that in the old days men—and only men—would stop into the bar half for a drink on their way home from work. Today, the shop half of A Venda do André is largely for show, but this hybrid space remains the template for the traditional poncha bars that exist across the island to this day.
I order a poncha and Ilda asks me if I want mine regional, meaning local-style, or pescador, fisherman-style. “The pescador was created in Câmara de Lobos,” Ilda tells me, referencing the fishing village located at the bottom of the winding road. “It’s the more traditional version, and it’s more tart,” she explains of its lemon-forward profile. “The regional, with orange juice and honey [rather than sugar], came later.”
I opt for a pescador, and she places a tall, heavy tumbler on the marble bar. Into this, she peels the zest of a local green lemon and tops it with a heaping spoonful of white sugar. With a large wooden muddler, she vigorously pounds the mixture until it’s morphed into a fragrant, pale green paste. She then fills a squat, stemmed glass to its halfway point with local unaged rhum agricole and tops it off with freshly squeezed lemon juice. These are added to the tumbler, the ingredients agitated using a unique wooden tool colloquially referred to as a caralhinho—“little dick.” The mixture is then strained back into the short glass to be served.
The drink is tart and fragrant, nearly all the boozy heat from the high-proof rum tempered by the abundant citrus. Traditionally, poncha is served just south of room temperature, without ice (“They didn’t have ice back then,” Ilda tells me by way of explanation), although increasingly it is seen served over a few ice cubes, in a tall glass. Even without the addition of ice, the drink is vibrant and refreshing.
Along with my drink, Ilda gives me a dentinho, a “bite,” which typically means roasted peanuts or brined lupin beans supplemented with garlic, peppers and parsley. At other bars on the island, dentinhos can take the form of something more substantial, such as a salad of fava beans, a tiny plate of macaroni or boiled shrimp, deep-fried pork rinds or cubes of deep-fried polenta.
A couple days later I find myself at Taberna da Poncha, yet another former corner store-cum-poncha bar located on the side of a mountain road. I order a poncha regional, and as owner Ana Vicente prepares my order she describes the numerous variations on the drink, which also include those made with tangerine or passion fruit juice. Taberna da Poncha is one of Madeira’s most popular destinations for poncha; with so many orders, instead of whipping up one or two glasses at a time, staff members make the equivalent of several drinks in large pitchers before transferring it to bottles for easier service.
To the mix of freshly squeezed lemon juice, orange juice and local white rum, Ana adds a dollop of honey, poncha regional’s other distinctive ingredient, then brings it all together with the caralhinho. She strains the golden liquid into its signature glass and pushes it toward me alongside a handful of peanuts dumped directly on the counter (the shells are discarded on the floor).
“It’s sweeter than the pescador, but it should be balanced—no single flavor should stand out,” she tells me. And she’s right. The drink leans just barely toward the sweet end of the spectrum, but manages to come together in a wonderfully cohesive way.
As was the case at A Venda do André, I sip less than half of my poncha, struggling my utmost not to down the whole thing in one go. Then, reluctantly, I leave the drink behind and brace myself for the winding, perilous drive back to my hotel.