Well before tiki bars adopted colorful plastic stirrers as their contemporary calling card, bartenders in Martinique were snapping twigs from native trees to stir up their own creations. Better known today as swizzles, they represent a longstanding West Indian tradition of mixed drinks, whose inherent theatrics and unique flavor profiles set the foundation for tiki and its bold, tropical style.
At its most basic, the swizzle is a simple mix of rum, water and aromatic flavoring, most often bitters or lime, though its etymology is more difficult to pin down. While one theory suggests that it’s a combination of the words “swill” and “guzzle”—two apt approaches to consuming this satisfying, tropical drink—another suggests that it’s more accurately derived from “switchel” and “fizz” (the former, an Anglo-American mixture of molasses and water; the latter, a relative of the cocktail sour).
Consisting of merely rum and water, early examples of the swizzle were unlikely to hold the attention of many travelers to the tropics. But, just as the advent of the American ice industry kicked our own drink game into high gear—enabling the creation of juleps, cobblers and cocktails—the arrival of ice-houses in the Caribbean in the 1860s elevated the swizzle from “cold rum and water, very weak,” as one newspaper noted in 1833, according to David Wondrich’s Imbibe!, to King of Caribbean cocktails. The addition of ice also necessitated the use of a bois le le, or swizzle stick, to quickly chill and combine the ingredients, in a move that has since become the hallmark of the drink.
Originally a short, pronged branch clipped from the quararibea turbinata tree (more commonly known as the “swizzle stick tree”), the OG drinks stirrer acted as a sort of proto-blender—the tropics’ answer to the cocktail shaker. But the question of how exactly it fits into modern drink-making is another issue, and one that’s open to debate; cocktail authority Wayne Curtis, author of And a Bottle of Rum, believes that the continued use of the swizzle stick is largely ritualistic, while the late Sasha Petraske viewed swizzling as akin to stirring, but more controlled. “It’s a way of not disturbing the muddled stuff that’s at the bottom,” Petraske told the New York Times in 2009, though he conceded, too, that “aside from that, I can’t think of any difference it makes.”
What is certain is that any true swizzled drink must be served in the vessel it was mixed in—and only consumed once the glass has garnered a nice, frosty finish. Here, three Caribbean classics and their contemporary counterparts.
Synonymous with the Caribbean, the original Rum Swizzle, with its base of rum, lime juice and bitters, has spurred countless variations. And while some bartenders choose to build upon its signature rum base—take, for example, Zac Overman’s Padang Swizzle, which is fortified not only with rum but also with amontillado sherry and Scotch—others swap it out entirely. The El Vato Swizzle calls instead on tequila and watermelon juice, while the Sloe Moon’s Rose relies on gin, Contratto and framboise.
Created in Trinidad in the 1920s, the rum-based, bitters-topped Queen’s Park Swizzle gets its name from a famous cricket field in the country’s capital, Port of Spain. Garnished with a bouquet of mint, it’s not dissimilar to its more modern iterations; while the Seven Seas Swizzle is most similar to the template of the original drink—swapping in green tea-infused cane syrup for simple—both the Boardwalk Flyer and the Fay Wray get a tropical lift by way of banana liqueur.
According to Wondrich, the Green Swizzle reigned supreme in the Caribbean from the late 1890s through the 1930s, before being dethroned by the Daiquiri #2. A Rum Swizzle made green by the addition of wormwood bitters (or crème de menthe, by some accounts), the Green Swizzle inspired countless literary references, including one by P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster, who famously declared that if ever he had a son, he would christen him Green Swizzle Wooster.
Forgoing the wormwood bitters, the Chartreuse and Sapin’s Swizzles get their color from their namesake liqueurs, while the USS Bomber—despite its addition of absinthe—heads to an entirely different corner of the color wheel. Layered red, white and blue, it’s an appropriately kitschy take on the original exotic drink.