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 flavoured syrup from 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 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 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 some 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 be the guy that commercialized it first. I doubt he invented it since the recipe is 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 Barbados?” Almonds would be the limiting factor for Falernum.
A Story on How Falernum Got Its 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 a New York Times article published in 1982 entitled “In the Lore of Barbados, Redistilled Rum”. The article is 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 the true story, or not, who knows, it is something.
But, my research has led 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)
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.
For more information about related to Falernum, check out the Green Swizzle.
“Falernum” (The Philadelphia Inquirer August 2, 1896)
7 Comments on Falernum
That is some impressive research, Darcy. So how long before we can expect to see a report on “Darcy’s Original 1896 Falernum”?
Wormwood bitters are kind of tasty. Work quite well in a Holland Gin Cocktail.
Gonna have to try them now with some falernum!
Thanks, Darcy! Nice research –and timely, since I just made up a batch of falernum yesterday for a weekend tikipalooza. Will you be revising your falernum recipe based on your research to date?
I think I’ll just be adding this recipe and call it “historical” and making notes on the other recipes. I think the flavour of falernum has changed significantly from this old recipe, especially with the addition of cloves and ginger. But I’m going to make a batch and try it out. I might even have some wormwood around to try the traditional way of drinking it. I’ll post when I try it out. Cheers!
Great stuff man!
Who would’ve known a trip to the library could be so fruitful.
Perfect timing! impressive research! And i happen to have a bag of wormwood lying about and now i know exactly what to do with it.Thanks for this post.
Thanks so much for this great article! I have a cutting board I bought while living in Bermuda that has the recipe for “The Bermuda Shrub” on it, and it calls for Falernum! I had no idea what it was, and was so pleased to find your site. I wrote down the recipe and will make up a batch forthwith! While in Bermuda, one of our fun venues was the Swizzle Inn, which made amazing rum drinks, and whose decor dated back to the late 1800’s! Folks wrote on the walls, ceilings, etc., You haven’t been to Bermuda until you’ve had a rum Swizzle! again, many thanks! Sue
Writer, author of Fix the Pumps, chemist, beekeper and general do-er-of-things, Darcy can generally be found looking for new and interesting things to do, usually over a cocktail. Currently working on more soda fountain history.