The tiki god glass nestled amidst the bottles of my home bar bristles with a fantastical array of plastic swizzle sticks. There’s the yellow putter from the Brae Burn Country Club, a red, lobster-topped relic from Hugo’s in Cohasset, Massachusetts and the see-through turquoise marlin emblazoned with Jimmy’s Harborside Restaurant. My favorite is a slender white stirrer topped with a miniature billboard reading “Memo: See you at the office.”
I inherited these relics from my late grandfather. He spent a lot of time out on the road in New England as a publisher’s sales rep in the mid-1950s and on through the end of the following decade. Whenever he stopped for a meal, he ordered a cocktail (or two), which usually arrived with swizzle stick jutting up from its depths. The idea was that patrons would take them home—like they would a book of matches—as a reminder of the bar or restaurant. For the establishments, the imprinted plastic utensils were branding tools.
The origins of these plastic stirrers, while muddled, have their roots in the Caribbean. The term “swizzle” begins appearing in literature in the 19th century, though it refers to a longstanding cocktail tradition—not a bartending implement. According to Edward Randolph Emerson’s Beverages, Past and Present: An Historical Sketch of Their Production (1908) a swizzle was a cocktail from St. Kitts “composed of six parts water to one of rum and an aromatic flavouring.”
Frederick Albion Ober’s 1920 book A Guide to the West Indies, Bermuda and Panama gives one of the first recorded insights into the origins of the stick itself, in reference to the proper way to make a Barbados-based swizzle cocktail containing rum, sugar and ice.
“[T]he stem of a native plant with radiating twigs, or roots, which, being deprived of its outer bark, is revolved rapidly between the palms of the hands,” writes Ober, “and, through the combined action of the motion and a peculiar saponaceous quality of the cambium layer of the twigs, produces a delicious froth.” Often the pronged branches of the allspice bush or aromatic quararibea turbinate were used, which earned the latter plant its nickname: the Swizzlestick Tree.
As molding technology and plastics were refined, producers began offering more creative and outlandish options to establishments, who constantly tried to one up each other. In the ‘50s and ’60s—the zenith years of the swizzle stick—designs went so far as to include miniature harmonicas or whistles dangling from their hooked tops and tree shaped sticks with tiny coconuts or bananas hanging from the branches.
As these sticks were becoming a part of Prohibition-era Caribbean cocktail culture, these bar tools were making inroads in America and Europe—but for a more pragmatic purpose. Queen Victoria and the flappers of the 1920s used both glass and plastic swizzle sticks to stir out the bubbles from champagne, so as to avoid any unladylike flatulence.
However, it took until the end of Prohibition to spark the idea for what came to be the branded plastic swizzle stick. Amateur inventor Jay Sindler was sipping on a Martini in 1934, wondering how he might retrieve his olive without wetting his fingers. In a fit of inspiration, he sketched out a barbed wooden spear featuring a small paddle at the other end, which could be imprinted with the establishment’s name or logo. Sindler filed a patent application the following year arguing for the need for his invention.
“[T]he difficulty of securing a cherry resting at the bottom of a cocktail glass without resorting to boorish antics obnoxious to people accustomed to polite social usages is so well known as to have become a matter of public comment and jest.”
His patent was approved and Sindler began mass-producing his invention through his new company, Spir-It, Inc. There is no clear documentation on how and when, exactly, he decided to appropriate the name swizzle stick (he referred to them simply as an “eating implement” on his patent application), but the name soon became synonymous with these plastic cocktail stirrers.
Over the next two decades, the branded stirrers became an increasingly common sight. As molding technology and plastics were refined, producers began offering more creative and outlandish options to establishments, who constantly tried to one up each other. In the ‘50s and ’60s—the zenith years of the swizzle stick—designs went so far as to include miniature harmonicas or whistles dangling from their hooked tops and tree shaped sticks with tiny coconuts or bananas hanging from the branches.
Unfortunately, drinkers in the ‘70s started moving away from cocktails, embracing wine as a cheaper, and supposedly healthier, alternative. And though swizzle sticks were still more affordable than matchbooks, operators realized they could easily be cut from their budgets.
Today they are an uncommon site outside of the occasional hotel or country club, as most bartenders have eschewed resurrecting them. “They seem so cheap,” says Liz Williams, president of the Museum of the American Cocktail, which has a small collection on display. “Craft cocktails have gotten upscale, so adding a plastic swizzle stick doesn’t seem classy in that context.”
Despite their demise, plastic swizzle sticks still command a small, but fervent, following. Founded in 1985, the International Swizzle Stick Collectors Association publishes a quarterly newsletter for collectors and hosts a convention every other year in Las Vegas. Members give lectures in the morning, swap swizzles in the afternoon and attend a cocktail party in the evening. And while Jay Sindler passed away in 1968, his firm—now under different ownership and operating as Spirit Foodservice—still produces a litany of customized plastic and wooden swizzle sticks annually. Sharp-eyed fans may spot them at Hooters, Marriott Suites and Chi-Chi’s, which have all commissioned their own.
Mecca for aficionados, however, is the Swizzle Stick Bar inside Café Adelaide in New Orleans, which opened in 2004, where cocktails come with a blue and white swizzle with a molded plastic cocktail shaker on top. When asked whether she sees the swizzle stick ever making a comeback, co-proprietor Ti Martin is frank. “I wish I could say yes, but I don’t see them anywhere,” she says. “It’s kind of a bummer.”
Even my own collection doesn’t get much use. My one-and-a-half-year-old son recently discovered my stash of retro swizzle sticks, which he believes are drumsticks. I don’t have the heart to disabuse him of the notion. Plus, it’s nice to see them in service, even if they’re beating out chaotic rhythms rather than stirring cocktails.