In a time of $15, infused vodka cocktails with too many ingredients (add a dash of pretentiousness), a simple drink is hard to come by. “Portlandia,” as always, captured it best: “That is a ginger-based bourbon drink infused with honey lemon and chard ice. Then building off of that base, we’ve got cherry tomato, lime zest. I actually made the bitters myself at home. We’ve got egg whites, eggshell, egg yellows. Rotten banana.”
The fancy mixologist forgot one ingredient, though: falernum.
This rum-based syrup with lime and spices—typically almond or ginger—originated in Barbados and likely isn’t stocked at your neighborhood bar. It can be alcoholic or nonalcoholic when served sans rum. Records pinpoint its popularity in America circa the ’30s, but the history gets fuzzy—even among well-read mixologists.
The word falernum originates from the Roman wine falernian (or falernum in Latin.) But modern falernum, found in classic tiki drinks like the Mai Thai or the Zombie, has little in common with the original use of the word except for it’s coloring. But even that is a little off—Pliny The Elder was once quoted describing it’s color as a rich amber. . In Food in the Ancient World: From A-Z, Andrew Dalby writes that the earliest reference to the fine Roman wine produced near Mt. Falernus was by Polybius in about 140 B.C. The word falernum as it is spelled today was most likely not used until 102 B.C.
The wine, which Pliny rated second to Caecuban in his evaluation of Italian wines, was at its best when aged 15-20 years, becoming darker over time from a light amber, to fuscum (brown), to niger (black). He also stated that it was the only wine high enough in alcohol content to catch fire. The Alcohol by Volume (ABV) of Falernum today is roughly 18 percent, comparable to other liqueurs like Kahlúa (20 percent) or Amaretto (24 percent). According to Pliny, Falernian wine (a very different beverage altogether) was close to 30 percent.
But Pliny’s second-favorite wine shares little more than a namesake with the syrup first invented in Barbados. In fact, a New York Times article from 1892 entitled “In the Lore of Barbados: Redistilled Rum,” tells a very different tale of the drink’s etymology. It includes a housewife’s recipe for the mixture and describes a moment of misunderstanding that resulted in the syrup’s namesake:
Once, when a woman was asked for the ingredients, she answered in the dialect, ‘Haf a learn um’ – ‘Have to learn how it’s done.’ Hence the name.
A Washington Post article from 1937 cites the use of falernum to improve the Cuban drink “El Presidente.” The “reason for this definite cocksureness,” the columnist wrote, was the exotic island quality of classic “tiki” drinks.
But cocktail blogger, Darcy O’Neil, who has written extensively on falernum, dug up this gem of a newspaper article from the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1896 which includes a basic recipe for the Caribbean syrup:
O’Neil also cites the research of Ted Haigh, whose work suggests the origin of the drink to be in question. He was unable to find any references before the ‘30s, when the recipe “one of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of the weak” received popularity in America.
In Explore Barbados (2000) Harry S. Pariser claims Bajan Henry Parkinson first mixed the ingredients (almonds, clove powder, ginger, crushed limes). His great-great-grandson, Arthur Stansfield, registered the combo in 1934 and brought it over to the states. But O’Neil says, a man named John D. Taylor claimed to invent falernum in 1890 and may have been responsible for the drink’s initial commercialization.
Tropical mixers like falernum gained popularity with Donn Beach‘s (Ernest Gantt) invention of the tiki bar in 1931. In ’33, Beach claimed to have invented the infamous Mai Tai which included the Barbadian mixture. By the ’70s, though, the thatched roof aesthetic—along with falernum cocktails—experienced a decline. In And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails, Wayne Curtis details the rise and fall of the “Tiki Era” of cocktails:
“Perhaps the most startling death knell for tiki rang out in 2000, when the glorious Kahiki restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, built in 1961 and featuring a forty-foot high tiki with a fireplace in its mouth was demolished to make way for a Walgreen’s drugstore.”
It’s difficult to track down records of homemade concoctions of the syrup predating these newspaper clippings, leaving plenty of room for variations on the recipe. But one thing most cocktail connoisseurs can agree on: Though falernum’s got a fuzzy past, it’s certainly obscure enough to impress party guests at your next “tiki era revival” hula party.