I am recently returned from a week in Texas, where I availed myself of another state’s take on liquor control — i.e. a bit more free-market, a bit less central committee. Courtesy of the vasty Spec’s Liquor, I’ve acquired a few bottles unavailable to luckless webfeet: Herbsaint, Noilly Prat dry vermouth, and John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum, along with some Fee Brother’s Falernum Syrup for comparison. No Torani Amer, unfortunately, but you can’t win ‘em all, and the hard-to-find Velvet Falernum was one of the biggies on my list.
Falernum, a mildly alcoholic lime-and-spice liqueur, is an essential component of a number of classic Caribbean cocktails. There seems to be some disagreement concerning the history of falernum, but those who enjoy folksy — if unlikely — origin myths may see the alleged story of its creation. Falernum had all but vanished from these shores when The Sazerac Company discontinued their production some years back, leaving only a few flavored syrups to meet the needs of the US market. Fortunately, the purported original recipe, John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum, is once again being imported (and much-promoted by Dale DeGroff).
Many sources suggest that the Fee’s syrup product can be freely substituted in equal parts whenever falernum is called for. It certainly would be convenient if true, since, being non-alcoholic, Fee’s products can be easily ordered while acquiring the boozy Velvet Falernum requires out of state travel or the assistance of visiting friends. Instead of something complicated, like Don the Beachcomber’s Mai Tai or the Zombie, the best comparison of the two products’ mixological merits seemed to be a very basic Bajan tipple, Corn ‘n Oil.
This from the John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum recipes page:
Corn ‘n Oil
1 oz. rum
1 oz. Velvet Falernum
1 dash Angostura Bitters
Stir with ice and strain into an old fashioned glass of more freshly crushed ice.
Curiously, the drink reminds me of nothing so much as a Cuba Libre — falernum has within it the sweet-spiciness of cola and the citric tang of lime. Made with Velvet Falernum, Corn ‘n Oil is a short, thin, pale, spicy and elegant cooler. Made with Fee’s, it’s thicker, flatter on the palate, less spicy and more like an under-diluted soda concentrate. There’s really no contest between the two — where Velvet Falernum yields a lively drink, the Fee Brothers’ Falernum Syrup delivers a monotonous thud. If forced to use Fee’s, I would add a few more dashes of their Aromatic Bitters to increase the spiciness, and up the rum to 1.5 oz to thin-down the syrupiness and approximate an alcoholic falernum.
Before my bottle of Velvet Falernum is exhausted I’ll have to have a go at making a batch of my own to test against it. This recipe from eGullet is hailed by some as being superior even to the John D. Taylor product, and Robert Hess records an un-sourced recipe for producing 30 gallons of falernum which is a bit more complicated and would require careful reduction.
Of course, all of the foregoing disregards the fact that most drinks calling for falernum ask for a mere dash to 1/4 oz. It’s possible that outside of Corn ‘n Oil, where the falernum plays such a major role, the Fee’s product is acceptable. I tend to suspect otherwise, but am willing to be proven wrong. I’m not sure what the next beverage trial will be — I was sure that Chas. Baker had recorded some uses for it in The Gentleman’s Companion, but a cursory pass turned up nothing. Perhaps the Royal Bermuda.
Update: Following the eGullet recipe mentioned above, Slakethirst West Indies Falernum has been made. It’s good!