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Falernum

by on September 2010

This particular cocktail ingredient has had a significant amount of discussion in the old blogosphere. Many of the cocktail luminaries, if there is such a thing, have researched the origins of this flavour syrup from the Barbados. None more than Ted "Dr. Cocktail" Haigh. In a now defunct Martini Republic post, the good Doctor made a couple of statements about Falernum that I have been able to clarify, and improve upon his research. These documents also have a recipe for Falernum that dates back to 1896. There is also a reference to drinking it with Wormwood bitters. Curious?

After Tales of the Cocktail (2008) I came home with a renewed appetite for the history of cocktails and all things drink related. Watching David Wondrich and Ted Haigh discuss the history of cocktails (Jerry's Kids) can be rather inspiring.

Now doing the historical research takes a fair amount of effort, but more importantly, resources. If you collect books, that is one way to access this information, otherwise going to your library might be useful, if it is the Seagrams Library. If that isn't an option, Google is decent, but everyone has access to the same info.

Beyond that are "paid" services like Proquest and Readex. These services provide copies of historical books and newspapers dating back to the 1700's, in some cases. They are a vast wealth of cocktail and drink history, but, for most people, accessing these services can be prohibitively expensive. I'm lucky enough to have access to these resources and this is where I've found these articles on Falernum.

Barbados in a Bottle

In a well written, and researched article, Ted Haigh made the following statements.

"My own in-depth research has not turned up a single document before the 1930s regarding the syrup, Falernum."

The research I've done has located a newspaper article titled "Falernum" (The Philadelphia Inquirer August 2, 1896) that publishes a recipe for Falernum. The interesting thing is that the recipe follows the One of Sour, Two of Sweet, Three of Strong, Four of Weak punch recipe. It also includes bitter almonds. The punch style recipe makes perfect sense, to me at least.

This particular article is also syndicated in a number of other newspapers at the time, including one entitled "A West Indian Appetizer" in Kansas City Star August 13, 1896. This article adds a little more info about Falernum.

It seems that traditionally Falernum was enjoyed with a teaspoon of Wormwood Bitters. The bitters were prepared very simply by soaking wormwood in alcohol.

I can tell you that there is disagreement as to when Falernum was "invented" and by whom.

Based on the newspaper article it would seem that John D. Taylor of Bridgetown, Barbados, who claims to have invented it in 1890, might actually be guy that commercialized it first. I doubt he invented it, since the recipe is basically an almond flavour punch based on a formula that goes way back.

A.V. Stansfeld, a producer of Falernum, told the New York Times in 1954, that his recipe for Falernum was from his great-great-grandfather. That recipe supposedly comes from around 1750. Another reasonable possibility and one that would indicate that falernum was something that many people had a "house" recipe. The only question I would have is; "when did almonds get imported to the Barbados?" Almonds would be the limiting factor for Falernum.

A Story on How Falernum Got It's Name

First, this is just a story, and as you should know, stories are just that. But it is the only publication based reference to how Falernum got its name.

The story comes from an New York Times article published in 1982 entitled "In the Lore of Barbados, Redistilled Rum". The article is basically a piece on the Mount Gay distillery. At the end of the article the discussion is on blending and bottling the rum. One of the statements made by Piercy Ward, plant manager, is that one formula is for a liqueur called Falernum based on an old Barbadian housewife's recipe. To quote: "Once, when a woman was asked for the ingredients, she answered in the dialect, 'Haf a learn um' - 'Have to learn how it's done.' Hence the name.

As to whether this is really the true story, or not, who knows, it is something.

But, my research has lead even further back to 1828 and a couple of advertisements for Shrub (Falernum). Was the precursor to Falernum a Shrub type liqueur? Probably, but that will take some more research.

Falernum Recipe (1896)

Falernum Recipe (1896)

1 Part Lime Juice
2 Parts Sugar Syrup
3 Parts Rum
4 Parts Water

Add almonds (almond extract) and allow the mixture to rest for a week. After resting bottle and serve over cracked ice with a teaspoon of wormwood bitters or substitute good quality bitters.

"Falernum" (The Philadelphia Inquirer August 2, 1896)