Cocktails

Paradise Found

November 22, 2019

Story: Robert Simonson

Photo: PUNCH

Cocktails

Paradise Found

November 22, 2019

Story:

Art: PUNCH

Until it was rediscovered in the 1990s, falernum was the missing piece of the tiki puzzle. This is how a group of fanatical pre-internet enthusiasts revived it.

Nothing drives cocktail bartenders to crazed obsession more than an ingredient they can’t get. In the 1990s and early ’00s, those fanatics were driven round the bend on a regular basis. Absinthe, allspice dram, Swedish punsch, orange bitters, Batavia arrack, crème de violette—they were all missing in action, making it impossible to properly build many of the pre-Prohibition cocktails that bartenders and enthusiasts alike longed to recreate, from the Aviation to the Doctor Cocktail.

Among this core of forgotten elixirs, falernum was particularly sought after. Its disappearance was one of the earliest fixations of the cocktail community, one that lasted years. The Caribbean syrup, made from rum, lime, ginger, almond and baking spices, was called for in bygone cocktails such as the Corn ’n’ Oil and the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club, both Daiquiri variations in which falernum was the critical addition. But its reclamation was a more vital cause for tiki fans, who needed it to complete a Jet Pilot, Three Dots and a Dash and, notably, the Zombie, arguably the most famous drink in the tiki canon.

And so a nationwide manhunt sprung up in the 1990s, and it didn’t ease up until the late ’00s, with drink detectives hot on the trail of the evasive liqueur in Los Angeles, New York, Seattle and Minnesota. They hunted for dusties in liquor stores, cajoled importers into bringing it in from Barbados and harassed distillers until they made their own version. Those who couldn’t find the bottles in their home market resorted to making their own for a time, before ultimately cornering the elusive flavoring and bringing it back into wide use.

To trace the winding road by which falernum returned to American cocktail glasses, we drew on the recollections of six drinks authorities: Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, the historian, bar owner and author who painstakingly decoded and reconstructed the lost world of tiki; Paul Clarke, an early cocktail journalist determined to get to the bottom of the liqueur by any means necessary; Dale DeGroff, the cocktail revival figurehead, who wanted falernum behind his influential bar at the Rainbow Room in New York; Ted Haigh, a historian who wrote Vintage Spirits & Forgotten Cocktails, a book dedicated to the hunt; Eric Seed, the visionary spirits importer who has brought many bottles back from the dead; and Richard Seale, the distiller who has been making the stuff in plain sight all along.

First Sightings

Paul Clarke (early cocktail journalist, now editor of Imbibe): My first exposure to it was likely on one of the cocktail-oriented internet forums at the time—DrinkBoy and eGullet—though when Ted Haigh’s Vintage Spirits & Forgotten Cocktails came out in 2004, the recipe for the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club cocktail caught my attention, and I became more curious about it.

Dale DeGroff (head bartender, the Rainbow Room, 1987 to 1999): During research for the first menu at Rainbow in 1987.

Ted Haigh (early cocktail historian and author): Trader Vic’s 1946 bar guide.

Eric Seed (founder of liquor importer Haus Alpenz, 2005 to present): When I first started selling spirits in California [in the 2000s]. Both Martin Cate, then at Forbidden Island, and Johnny Raglin, then at Absinthe, said it disappeared with the closure of the prior importer.

Richard Seale (master distiller and blender at R.L. Seale & Co. in Barbados): Falernum has been made in Barbados certainly since the 18th century, possibly earlier. Falernum was pervasive in Barbadian culture. It was consumed as a liqueur, used in cocktails of the well-to-do, used in cooking and used for medicinal purposes.

The Hunt

Haigh: When I first encountered recipes needing it, it was the late ’80s, early ’90s [and] Sazerac Company was still making their Stansfield version then.

Jeff “Beachbum” Berry (tiki historian and author, owner of New Orleans’ Latitude 29, 2014 to present): I met Ted [Haigh] in 1991, when he was searching for long-lost pre-Prohibition cocktail ingredients and I was searching for long-lost post-Prohibition tiki cocktail ingredients. Falernum just happened to figure in both categories. I started driving around Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Bakersfield and Pasadena looking for “dead stock,” which new owners of old liquor stores sometimes brought out of the basement and put on their shelves, regardless of the fact that the expiration date was long past. I did find Sazerac brand falernum… The only problem was that for every bottle I found that was still usable, there were 10 that had these weird strands of brownish DNA suspended in the bottle—obvious rot from the long past sell-by date.

Haigh: I had my Sazerac stash and…when they ceased production, I encouraged Fee Brothers to attempt a bottling.

Berry: [Ted] took a bottle of the expired Sazerac falernum that he’d found to Rochester, New York, where he talked himself into a meeting with the owner of Fee Brothers and insisted that they re-create a falernum using the Sazerac as their template—because the world needed it! Incredibly, that’s just what Fees did.

DeGroff: I ordered a case of the Sazerac version. It was brown and maderized. I didn’t know there was anything wrong until I tasted it. It was ghastly. I wrote the stuff off at that point and just forgot about it. It wasn’t until the ex-president of United Distillers was at my bar and ordered a rum swizzle with falernum that I found out the truth. “That’s not falernum. Give me your address; I’ll send you the real thing.” He had a place in Barbados and sent me a six-pack case of 1½-liter John D. Taylor Velvet Falernum. I loved it and whipped through that case in no time.

Richard Seale: My family has been making falernum since the 1920s. My family did R.L. Seale Rum and R.L. Seale Falernum. So did Martin Doorly, Alleyne Arthur and John D. Taylor. When Alleyne Arthur acquired John D. Taylor, they dropped their own falernum and continued the John D. Taylor recipe. Likewise, when we bought Alleyne Arthur, we stopped bottling our own and continued the John D. Taylor Falernum.

DeGroff: Charmer [Industries, Inc., an importer] picked it up because I asked them to. (At the time I was putting a lot of the salesmen’s kids through college with my orders at the Rainbow Room!) I went to the monthly new products sales meeting at Charmer in Queens for literally the whole sales force, several hundred. I batched a rum punch with a liberal dose of the Velvet Falernum and gave out hundreds of tastes. I spoke about it and promised they could refer to me accounts who were curious about the product.

Seale: We acquired the [Taylor] brand in 1993 and started export to the U.S. about the year 2000. We started with one importer with very limited success and the product went dead. Once we went with a specialist importer—Eric Seed of Haus Alpenz—who would reach the right accounts, demand was created.

DeGroff: I made sure all my pals in the craft world were aware that it was finally available in the USA through Charmer. Julie Reiner and Audrey Saunders were the first two people to call and tell me that their Charmer rep told them that the product wasn’t carried by Charmer. The SOBs had no interest in single-bottle sales of oddball products and just ignored the orders for it… It was not until Eric Seed at Haus Alpenz picked the brand up that orders were regularly delivered.

Seed: [I imported Taylor] around 2008, after meeting with Richard Seale of R.L. Seale. [A] small handful of early tiki bars and quite a few of the burgeoning classic cocktail bars [used it].

Haigh: Eric [Seed] has been pretty heroic about coming in when there seemed to be no hope for some then-uncommon products, and I credit him for doing that with Velvet Falernum.

The Home Front

Haigh: Most home-brewed versions came later from devotees.

Clarke: In the early 2000s, products like Velvet Falernum and Fee Brothers’ falernum were in existence, but not widely distributed, and online liquor sales were still in their infancy. I searched for bottles of falernum, but in my home city of Seattle, I had no success… I needed to resort to other measures. I posted about my first batch of falernum on my “Cocktail Chronicles” blog in July 2005… A local reader got in touch and asked if I’d like to try my version alongside a sample of Velvet Falernum. That was Murray Stenson, who at the time was head bartender at Zig Zag Café.

Berry: Paul Clarke’s recipe was pretty damned good, if you had the wherewithal to make it.

Clarke: I attended my first Tales of the Cocktail, and I brought along samples of my falernum, which I’d wanted to try out on a few people I’d not yet met in person: Jeff Berry and Ted Haigh… Someone else sitting at our table mentioned that he had seen my recipe online, and had tried it for himself… I had no idea who he was at the time, and only later found out it was [bartender] Chad Solomon, who’d apparently been serving my falernum recipe at Milk & Honey and Pegu Club.

Legacy

Seed: [It restored] a cornerstone to rum drinks, making easy access to one of the most versatile of mixed drink ingredients.

Seale: Falernum has a nice, steady, niche volume. We are proud that this uniquely Barbadian liqueur has a committed following in the U.S. It is less about the volume than the pride of place.

Clarke: It’s only a bit player in the bigger show, but it’s been opening doors to recreating classic drinks as well as innovation with classic ingredients, which makes me really happy.

Berry: It’s such a complex compound syrup—incorporating clove, ginger, lime, almond and sugar—and so singular in what it does to a cocktail that its revival has been crucial to our 21st-century cocktail renaissance.

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