The Origins of the Swizzle Cocktail and Falernum Liqueur

Mai Tai, Velvet Falernum, Rum

Velvet Falernum liqueur deepens the flavors in a Mai Tai.

“The old recipe for a swizzle is ‘One of sour (lime juice), two of sweet (syrup), three of strong (gin, whiskey, brandy, etc.), four of weak (water).’” –George A. Johnson, Travel Tales and Other Stories

The swizzle is a class of cocktails that hails from the British West Indies (Trinidad, Barbados, etc.), featuring the general ingredients described above. No one is quite sure how far back the swizzle hails, but it has been a popular island drink since at least the early 1900s. In his 1930 anthropological accounting of the British West Indies, Travel Tales and Other Stories (Monumental Publishing), author George A. Johnson, an American civil engineer and explorer (member of the delightful-sounding “Circumnavigators Club”), documents the eating and drinking traditions of the islands, among other observations.

“In Barbados, the favorite appetiser [sic] is a swizzle known as ‘green bitters.’” Johnson writes. “This is made by mixing a wine glass of rum, one of white falernum (sometimes omitted), half a wineglass of water, wormwood bitters to taste, and plenty of crushed ice. The whole is frothed up with a swizzle stick,” he notes. For the uninitiated Johnson describes a swizzle stick as “the stem of a plant with convenient radiating branches and is made to revolve backwards and forwards between the palm of the hands.”

The falernum he references is a sugar cane-based liqueur (there’s also a non-alcoholic syrup) flavored with cloves, almonds, and limes. It adds a richly spiced dimension to Caribbean and tiki cocktails like the Zombie, Corn ‘n Oil, and the Mai Tai. Most bar manuals start referencing falernum in the 1930s, but I found the liqueur advertized in a 1914 Barbados Tourist Guide, which specified that Johnson & Redman General Grocers and General Store “are manufacturers of the well-known West Indian liqueur ‘White Falernum.”

For years, fans of the Swizzle and other tropical drinks had to make their own falernum (try this DIY version), as it wasn’t available in the States. In 2008, John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum liqueur came onto the market, followed and non-alcoholic syrups like Fees Brothers Falernum. These products — especially the liqueur falernum — are essential for the tiki-focused home bar. Once you try a Mai Tai with falernum, you’ll never go back the the orgeat-syrup version. These are my favorite Swizzle and falernum-containing recipes. Enjoy!

Recipe: Erica’s Favorite Rum Swizzle

  • 1 1/2 ounces aged dark rum (if you like a milder taste, go with white rum)
  • 3/4 ounce lime juice, plus lime shell
  • 1/2 ounce John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum
  • 3 dashes Angostura bitters

Fill a mixing glass with crushed ice, and add all ingredients. Swizzle with a swizzle stick or stir rapidly with a long-handled spoon. Add spent lime shell to a highball and pour the contents of mixing glass over it.

Recipe: Falernum-Enhanced Mai Tai

  • 2 ounces aged dark rum
  • 1/2 ounce John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum
  • 1/2 ounce Cointreau
  • 1/4 ounce simple syrup
  • Juice from one fresh lime

Add all ingredients, plus the shell from half a lime to shaker. Shake vigorously, and pour contents into an ice-filled lowball glass. Submerge the lime shell in the cocktail and float a sprig of mint in the cocktail.

Photo Credit: Poul Lange