With tiki’s second act in full swing, scores of bartenders have been revisiting decades’ worth of tradition draped, like so many flower necklaces, around this cultish cocktail movement. Evidenced by the resurgence of the swizzle stick, the return of fassionola syrup and the debate over Don’s Mix, bartenders are testing the classic template and its key ingredients in exciting new ways. Falernum, once a guarded element of the tiki canon, is no exception.
The Modern Prometheus
Typically a rum-based liqueur, falernum is flavored primarily with lime, ginger, clove and almond. “In the classic tiki sense, falernum lends a certain layered complexity to tiki cocktails, so they’re not just rum and fruit juice,” says Danny Shapiro of Chicago’s Scofflaw, Sink|Swim and Slippery Slope.
But, despite being widely associated with tiki, falernum also belongs to the long held tradition of stirred drinks, like the dark and brooding Corn ‘n’ Oil—which mixes blackstrap rum, falernum, lime and bitters. And as of late, falernum is also popping up with more frequency in other non-tiki drinks, like the Whiskey Sour, the Tom Collins and the Margarita.
Most commercial falernums—including John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum, which hails from Barbados and is the leading label in America—are low in alcohol, making them suitable substitutes for basic sweetening agents, from demerara syrup to grenadine. (Taylor’s version is bottled at 11 percent ABV, while Fee Bros. makes a version that is nonalcoholic.) But there’s nonetheless a range; Shapiro is such a believer in falernum’s versatility as a sweetener that he developed his own higher proof commercial version, which clocks in at around 35 percent ABV. Called Lucky Falernum, and made in collaboration with BroVo Spirits, Shapiro argues that it can make for a “really bold Daiquiri,” simply opposite lime juice, taking the places of both simple syrup and rum.
Other bartenders, including Daniel Bedoya of New York’s The Third Man, are presenting falernum in a seasonal context, given its characteristic baking-spice undertones. “I wanted to make [a] wintry… boozy cocktail,” Bedoya says of his aptly named, The Irish, an Old-Fashioned riff made with Irish whiskey. But instead of reaching for the customary simple syrup, he turned to falernum for additional dimension. “Velvet Falernum works great for that,” says Bedoya of Taylor’s popular bottling. “It brought out the ginger notes [in the drink], as well as lime zest components.”
Falernum’s complexity can also help to round out the flavor profile of a cocktail made with white spirits. At San Francisco’s Whitechapel—a gin-centric bar part-owned by Martin Cate—falernum is embraced for its ability to complement the house’s favorite spirit.
Since gin is typically not barrel-aged, explains Whitechapel bartender Keli Rivers, “you’re not getting those vanillins, you’re not getting those caramel notes,” she says, referring to the flavor profile you’d get from an aged spirit, like bourbon. “Adding something like a Curaçao… or velvet falernum, [which] I like to explain as a lime Curaçao, adds a little sweetness and depth and roundness.”
This is precisely how Whitechapel approaches The Modern Prometheus, an original cocktail crafted by Cate, which takes its inspiration from the Zombie, a thrice-rummed heavyweight of the tiki pantheon. But owing to its trio of Navy-strength gin, sloe gin and genever, the cocktail sheds the traditional rum-and-juice tiki flavor profile; falernum, however, transplates the warm spice and roundness one might associate with rum to gin. “It gives gin depth and character… [and] brings baking spices out of gin cocktails,” Rivers says of falernum. “The maces, the nutmegs and the cardamoms—it makes those shine higher than the juniper in the cocktail.”