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Monday, June 12, 2006

Barbados in a Bottle

Having survived whiskey, punch, cocktails, and pomegranates with me, shall we have a look at another funky syrup? Falernum; it’s a dual darling both of traditional Bajan drinks (and those native to the surrounding tropics) and also of the mythic and lush tiki drinks of the mid century. This spicy syrup is gaining stature in the larger cocktail revival as well.

Falernum is a subject about which I am not exactly an impartial observer, but about which I have done a great deal of research nevertheless. I will admit any potential conflicts of interest as they pop up.

I can tell you that there is disagreement as to when Falernum was “invented” and by whom. It’s easy enough to imagine that it, like orgeat, was once a home made potion - a folk recipe if you will. How it came to be called Falernum is anyone’s guess. The only previous use of the term historically was for a particular growth of the grapes of “falernian” wine, a famed and ancient Roman wine made near Campania. Falernum was the name of the lowest growth grapes – at the foot of the hill. How a flavored sugar syrup of the West Indies assumed this name, hundreds of years later, we just don’t know.

Currently in the United States, there are three competing brands of Falernum, the syrup: John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum, Fee Brothers West Indies Style Falernum, and DaVinci Caribbean Falernum. This was not always the case. As recently as 2000, there was none to be had. As to how and when Falernum came to be commercially marketed, there is the Taylor’s stance (disclosure: when Dale DeGroff initially was involved in its importation and marketing, he came out to LA for his book signing in 2002 and presented me with a lovely bottle of Velvet Falernum about which he was justifiably proud - as was I to receive the bottle from his hands) which is as follows: “This famous Bajan ‘Gold Medal’ beverage and mixer, with a uniquely refreshing flavor was developed by John D. Taylor of Bridgetown, Barbados in 1890. Born and bred on the island of Barbados, this slightly alcoholic sugar cane based liqueur is a staple of every Bajan’s bar. Its special taste comes from a refined infusion of lime laced with fine cane syrup and ‘botanicals’ including almonds and cloves.” This was from the product website. By the way, Velvet Falernum is actually made by R.L. Seale & Co. Ltd. of Barbados, makers of some really world-class rum. In the States it is marketed at 11 percent alcohol, or 22 proof.

Velvet Falernum

I spoke to Sir David Seale, the owner and grandson of R.L. Seale by telephone in Barbados. Apparently namesake John D. Taylor was a “provisioner;” a sort of general store keeper and spirits seller. Falernum was his only invention says Sir David, who is 69, and remembers drinking it on crushed ice as a child. Many companies made it, and it was native to Barbados. Both alcoholic and non-alcoholic versions were produced and still are, even under the Taylor brand. I personally have both alcoholic and non-alcoholic bottles of Taylor Falernum. The 1923 and 1980 gold medals depicted on the bottle label were from local Bajan agricultural exhibitions. Sir David describes Velvet Falernum as a lime juice, sugar, spice, and Angostura Bitters cordial which, owing to its low price and alcohol content was termed the “Poor man’s cordial” 60+ years ago. Of the 50/50 rum and Falernum on crushed ice drink, the “Corn n’ Oil,” “going to heaven without dying” was what used to be said of it, in his childhood, by Planters for whom the drink was a favorite. Taylor went out of business many years ago, having sold the recipe and company name to one entity, and it in turn to another, and another as the years passed before being picked up, secret Falernum formula and all, by R.L. Seale, Ltd. in 1993. Whatever original history is left of this ancestry is locked in a safe at the feet of Sir David Seale.

Sazerac-Stansfeld Falernum

Most cocktail researchers like myself became acquainted with Falernum in the 1980s and ‘90s through a product, labeled “The Genuine Falernum” “…Prepared and bottled from an original Barbados, BWI formula as under the supervision of A.V. Stansfeld…” This is the product that was called for in any tiki drinks requiring Falernum 1940s-1990s and was distributed in the States at some point by the Sazerac Company.

I tracked down the successors to A.V. Stansfeld, Stansfeld-Scott, Inc. now headquartered in Clearwater, Florida, but with a subsidiary in St. Michael, Barbados. I spoke to the owner, Brian Cabral.

Stansfeld Scott, Inc., traces its origins back to the Bajan company, Stansfeld Scott & Co. Ltd. which was founded in 1935 by Arthur V. Stansfeld and Donald V.S. Scott. Stansfeld Scott’s initial trade was in blending and bottling their own rum, Cockade, and what they claim to be the original Falernum. Mr. Cabral’s accountings of the origins (and tribulations) of Falernum differ markedly from those of Sir David Seale.

According to Cabral, Arthur Stansfeld invented Falernum in 1935 to, in his words, “make a buck!” Sazerac became the importer & distributor in the U.S. Subsequently, at some point in the early 1990s, through an oversight, Stansfeld-Scott allowed the Falernum trademark to lapse. Sazerac, Cabral said, quickly registered trademark in the United States for themselves. As of 2002 when I spoke to Mr. Cabral, he believed that Sazerac still held the U.S. trademark for Falernum. He and Sir David concurred about the other companies in Barbados now producing Falernum - but not to the respective recipes each company claims as original. Mr. Cabral asserts he has vintage A.V. Stansfeld documents which list the ingredients in his Falernum formula, but he admits are not strictly a recipe.

My own in-depth research has not turned up a single document before the 1930s regarding the syrup, Falernum. Since Sir David’s earliest memories are 60 years in the past, it could be that Arthur Stansfeld concocted the original. Let us assume in the interests of harmony that both companies are correct, and that Stansfeld’s Falernum may have been the original Falernum made to his own popular formula, and that John Taylor developed the original Falernum, so-named, 45 years earlier. As of the 1940s and the ascendant tiki craze, it appears certain that Stansfeld’s Falernum was the one in use in the States. As it is, the Sazerac-Stansfeld Falernum is no longer produced at all.

The DaVinci product was the result of a Seattle restaurant that had been using the Sazerac-Stansfeld Falernum to make cocktails with, and when they ran out and couldn’t get it anymore, they talked a local coffee syrup company, DaVinci, into making it for them. DaVinci has since become a national force in syrups and they deserve credit for producing a product that, in 2000, could not otherwise be obtained in this country.

Fee Brother Falernum

This is where Fee Brothers Falernum comes in, and here comes my second disclosure as well: I am one of a very few people still in possession of bottles of the Sazerac-Stansfeld Falernum. The Fee family and I jointly developed the flavor of their Falernum to match as exactly as we could that of the Sazerac-Stansfeld product. Most dyed-in-wool tiki fanatics after much debate came to the determination that Fee Brothers Falernum was truer to the character and balance of their beloved tiki punches, though that debate never truly ends.

This says two things to me: 1) the origin of a thing is different than its heyday. 2) If you can conceive of owning two different Bourbons (or Cognacs, or vodkas) is it such a leap to keep two different brands of the same type of syrup? I don’t think so. I’m intimately acquainted with both products. Heads of both of these companies very amicably spent time with me, divulging historic, product, and company details that, frankly flabbergasted me with their candor. Bottom line: when I make tiki drinks, I use Fee Brothers West Indies Falernum. When I make traditional Swizzles, Slings and recipes genuinely native to the Islands, I insist on John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum. Why choose?! –Doc.

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