On Falernum

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!

12 thoughts on “On Falernum”

  1. I realize I’m a bit late to the party, but a pineapple-juice-containing drink I quite like is the Planter’s Punch in Dale DeGroff’s Craft of the Cocktail. You might want to give it a try.

    Falernum Content: zero. Sorry.


  2. Why not get a bottle of the DaVinci falernum from Seattle? It’s non-alcoholic and they ship it fairly cheaply. I buy 3 bottles at a time, to make Don the Beach. maitais and zombies. It’s wonderful!

  3. DaVinci sucks.. anyone with half a brain would know that. get a life and buy the real stuff loser! Maybe u have to save up an extra week to afford it, or pass on the 129837192783918723 cheeseburgers you eat a week from MCD.


  4. Whoah. I gather there’s rather a broad spectrum of opinion.

    Speaking for myself, I’ve not tried DaVinci syrup. I’ve not seen it for sale, and I’m pretty happy with my own version of Falernum (or with John D. Taylor’s when I can lay my hands on it). Mind you, my recipe could doubtless stand improving, but I don’t use it often enough, so it tends to hang around. Paul, of the Cocktail Chronicles, however, has been plugging away at batches of homemade falernum, and may have arrived at something near-perfect. I’ll have to cook-up his recipe next time my supply is low.

    Incidentally, I was unaware that Ted Haigh had a hand in the concoction of Fee Bros’ Falernum, but in a recent post on the subject, he reveals that to be the case. Dr. C’s preference is to use Fee’s when making tiki drinks — fanciful creations that they are — and John D. Taylor’s for drinks actually native to the Caribbean.

  5. I read the cocktail cronicles recipe and it looked like the best formula I have seen but it did not have allspice in it but it still looked close to my own recipe what I do is
    Bring to a boil over high heat and reduce to a simmer and simmer for 8 minutes:
    4 cups sugar
    1 cup water
    16 oz bottled fresh lime juice
    the peel and juice from two more limes
    20 whole cloves
    20 allspice berries
    5 quarter size pieces of peeled fresh ginger smashed with a knife
    when syrup is cooked add 3/4 of a small bottle of real almond extract and allow to coll at room temperature and them add:
    3 tb Vitamin C crystals (powdered ascorbic acid)
    8 drops fee brothers aromatic bitters
    1 cup wray and nephew white overproof rum
    2 drops red food coloring mixed with 1/4 cup water
    and blend
    slowly filter it through many layers of cheese cloth and it will come out slightly pinkesh and clear and it is great in drinks

  6. The only exposure I’ve had to a Corn ‘n Oil was made by Murry at the Zig Zag in Seattle. He uses the Cruzan Blackstrap rum. The flavour is thick and complex even if it does look like used crankcase oil from a lawn mower. (In fact, I thought that might have been where the ‘oil’ part came from…) I’ve not tried it with a lighter rum but will have to give it a go and see how they compare nowthat I’ve got a bottle of the Taylors Falernum. Busy packing my suitcases now from a trip to LA heading back to Seattle to spend my birthday at Zig Zag. Of course, I had to buy an extra suitcase at goodwill to accomidate all the bottles…

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