The key elements in a tiki bartender’s arsenal are self-evident: Caribbean rum, fresh juices, ornate mugs and outlandish garnishes. But there’s one oft-overlooked, yet essential ingredient that those out to recreate tiki drinks must know: falernum.
Falernum Gone Wild
Spiced with ginger and clove, lime and almond, falernum can appear either as a sweet liqueur (usually around 11 percent ABV) or a non-alcoholic syrup. It might not have the name recognition of orgeat or the leading-lady status of rum, but even a barspoon lends something intriguing and inimitable to a cocktail.
“It’s got so much going on and it all meshes,” says tiki expert Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. “It adds mystery and complexity to cocktails that other syrups can’t do alone—only in tandem.”
We know that falernum was, and still is, a product of Barbados. But its exact origins are murky. “It seems to have begun as a folk recipe that Bajans [citizens of Barbados] made at home,” says Berry, “the way Italians made Limoncello.”
References to falernum date as far back as 1852, when Charles William Day, in Five Years’ Residence in the West Indies, wrote of “a sort of cold rum punch called ‘falernum,’ a very baneful, heady, bilious drink in great request.”
While falernum was a key component in many of the cocktails at Don the Beachcomber’s Cafe, Donn Beach was notorious for closely guarding his ingredients and recipes to deter rival establishments that soon popped up. The exotic falernum was no exception. “It was more of a secret ingredient for Donn Beach,” says Berry. “It wasn’t really popularized by him—more kept close to his chest.”
An 1877 British colonial trade exhibition text defines falernum as a liqueur, rather than a punch, “made with rum, lime juice, and sugar.” And a Philadelphia Inquirer from 1896 describes a similar drink native to the West Indies, with wormwood and bitter almonds.
It seems likely that Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt—later known as Donn Beach, the founding father of the tiki movement—came across falernum during his time in the Caribbean, which, along with his travels through the South Pacific, sparked the idea for the tropically-themed cocktails (and kitschy decor) now identified as tiki. While falernum was a key component in many of the cocktails at his Don the Beachcomber’s Cafe, which opened in 1934 in Hollywood, Don was notorious for closely guarding his ingredients and recipes to deter rival establishments that soon popped up. (He kept his own bartenders in the dark, having them mix recipes from bottles labeled with codes and numbers.) The exotic falernum was no exception. “It was more of a secret ingredient for Donn Beach,” says Berry. “It wasn’t really popularized by him—more kept close to his chest.”
With the rise of tiki culture, including the expansion of Don the Beachcomber’s, the Trader Vic’s chain in Northern California and other bars in that tradition, the tiki movement began to develop a canon of its own. And many of the drinks that now populate the classic tiki collection—the Zombie, the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club, the Bermuda Rum Swizzle—rely on falernum’s carefully layered flavors.
By the mid-20th century, A.V. Stansfeld’s Genuine Falernum was widely used, according to Berry. “But many places did make their own.”
But with the decline of tiki culture in the 1960s and ’70s, its associated products fell into decline as well, and as recently as 2000 there was no commercially available falernum on the market. But soon after, John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum—an alcoholic falernum that traces its own lineage back to 1890, and whose proprietary recipe was sold to rum producer R. L. Seale in the 1990s—reentered the American market. Sweet and quite heavy on the clove, it delivers all the classic falernum flavors, but “it’s pretty one dimensional,” says Ryan Maybee of Manifesto in Kansas City. “It doesn’t add to cocktails what making your own can.”
Between limited product availability and the ease of making falernum, it’s not surprising that many bartenders have opted to go the DIY route. Maybee’s version leans on the traditional lime, clove almond and ginger profile. “It’s delicious and I’d drink it straight if it weren’t so sweet; the flavors just pop.” Jamie Boudreau of Canon in Seattle also begins with a classic base, but adds allspice, black peppercorns and bitters, cooking all the ingredients with rum sous vide to infuse the flavors quickly.
Others see the classic falernum recipe as more of a template, making their own in order to push beyond the standard ingredients. At NYC’s Pouring Ribbons, Shannon Tebay changes up her version seasonally. For colder months, she creates a nutmeg falernum heavy on the winter baking spices, as well as a mole falernum with cocoa and chipotle. In the summer, a coconut-macadamia falernum and a pistachio and black pepper version grace both classic and original drinks.
Ever since its inception, tiki has required ingredients particular to its repertoire, often handmade with great pride and care. So it makes sense that, in this age of craft cocktails where the DIY ethos reigns supreme, enthusiasts have begun riffing on the classic falernum template to create their own distinct style, sparking ideas for cocktails both inside and outside the tiki-verse. And now that we’re decades beyond tiki empire rivalries, bartenders are far more open with their recipes, offering tiki’s prototypical “secret ingredient” a chance to emerge from its coded bottle behind the bar and into the tropical limelight.