When it comes to swizzle stick superfans, it’d be tough to imagine one more diehard than Pam Ashlund. The Los Angeles-based finance director runs the Etsy shop House of Swizzle, serves as the editor of the International Swizzle Stick Collectors Association and is currently working on a history book, written “from the point of view of a swizzle stick.”
According to Ashlund, however, her collection of some 3,000 swizzle sticks is small potatoes compared to others in the 30-odd member collectors group. “One woman has 29,000,” Ashlund says. “Some say they don’t know how many they have.”
While swizzle sticks have been out of mainstream cocktail culture since the ’70s (beyond old-school tiki lounges and swanky hotels and casinos, that is), the steadfast devotion to this cocktail accessory on the fringes demonstrates that it’s more than just a plastic freebie; it is, rather, its own form of accessible pop art, a bar’s DNA downloaded onto a slim piece of molded plastic.
When he opened Hidden Harbor in Pittsburgh earlier this year, owner Adam Henry ensured that it would possess all the trappings of a modern tiki bar: clouds of cotton candy as cocktail garnishes, a massive totem statue leering over the lounge, gilded pineapples as cocktail vessels and a classed-up pupu platter complete with curried lamb and rare slices of tuna.
To complete the experience, Henry knew he needed a custom swizzle stick. In designing his, Henry says he was inspired by those at Longitude in Oakland and Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago, which both utilize swizzles where the entire stick is shaped (the former, a tall-necked giraffe; the latter, bright, opalescent seahorses and mermaids) as opposed to a design perched on the top. His version (in both bright teal and orange) is a shark, with a curved, logo-stamped tail that pokes out of the top of each drink.
In a moment when everything from rainbow bagels to milkshakes topped with entire pieces of cake is engineered purely for the photo-sharing potential on Instagram, an eye-catching swizzle stick is just smart business—working as a sort of social media geotag that’s embedded in the cocktail itself. This is, in a sense, the original purpose of a swizzle stick, after all.
The cocktail stirrer-style swizzle was patented in 1934 by Jay Sindler, who founded the cocktail accessory company Spir-it, as a spear-tipped stick with room for advertising on top. While Sindler’s company is still in business today as Spirit Foodservice, Inc., the current ne plus ultra of swizzle stick producers is Royer Corporation, the Indiana-based, family-run company responsible for everything from the gilded gladiator helmet sticks at Caesar’s Place in Las Vegas to the devilish horn player-topped numbers at the Chateau Marmont in Beverly Hills to the swizzles for several classic tiki bars, like Trader Vic’s.
Casinos, hotels and resorts, airlines, big liquor brands and chain restaurants are a much larger source of business for Royer, but they’ve wizened to the potential in the craft cocktail movement, lowering their minimum custom order (relatively speaking, to 10,000 pieces) and sponsoring Tales of the Cocktail for the first time this summer. They’ve also effectively cornered the modern tiki market; beyond Hidden Harbor and Longitude, the company counts Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, Lost Lake in Chicago and Latitude 29 in New Orleans as customers, too.
With 2.0 swizzles finding a place in the modern tiki bar, it’s not so preposterous to imagine them coming back elsewhere. Just ask Ashlund: “They’re cute, they’re nice memories to bring home, and the same things that made them useful then still are now,” she says. “How else do you get the cherry out of the bottom of the glass?”
For a closer look at the swizzle’s visual range, we asked Royer to share a selection of the hundreds of classic and over-the-top sticks they’ve produced over the years. Viewed together, it’s a compelling argument for the swizzle as art form.
From left: The Borgata (Atlantic City), The Broadmoor (Colorado Springs), Caesar’s Palace (Las Vegas), Chateau Marmont (Beverly Hills), Trader Vic’s (global), Tadich Grill (San Francisco)
Unlike most independently owned cocktail bars, glamorous hotels and casinos have held on to the swizzle stick as a way to add value to often comically expensive drinks—and offer a key memento to tourists. “For airlines and bigger clients, these parts have become part of their brand,” says Tom Seaver, Royer’s Director of Marketing. These classic designs tend toward restraint, but in the case of Tadich Grill, the swizzle strives for an extra level of souvenir cred by topping the stick with a San Francisco cable car (which, according to Royer’s Executive Vice President of Sales, Pat Berry, took several tries to get just right).
The Full-Blown Tikis
From left: Longitude (Oakland), Three Dots and a Dash (Chicago), Hidden Harbor (Pittsburgh), Shrunken Head Tropic Lounge (Jefferson City, MO), LuWOW (Melbourne), Ventiki (Ventura)
When it comes to tiki-style stirrers, designs tend to be weightier and more ostentatious (which is why Trader Vic’s more restrained, old-school style is grouped with those above). The three on the left—from Longitude (giraffe), Three Dots and a Dash (mermaid) and Hidden Harbor (shark)—are more sculptural than their classic tiki counterparts on the right. “Their design is just more modern,” says Lindsey Williams, Royer’s Director of Design. “We are seeing that trend shift from a plain stick with the ball at the end to people incorporating shapes.”