This is beautiful! What is that? Velvet Falernum?
Updated: Nov 2, 2020
My fellow Coming to America fans likely picked up the title reference. But for those of you who didn’t, here’s a masterpiece for your viewing:
While I could watch clips from that movie for hours (or just watch the entire movie), it's time to examine the world of Falernum, and, in particular, John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum. If you would rather watch us discuss John D. Taylor Velvet Falernum, explore the history of Falernum, and make two cocktails with Velvet Falernum, then please click on the following video.
The vague history of Falernum
Falernum is a syrup that originated in Barbados. Or, at least that what most spirit scholars believe. Falernum is adored for its bouquet of cloves, almond, ginger, lime, and sugar. That’s practically a one-bottle Tiki bar! There are both alcoholic and nonalcoholic versions of Falernum. The former is made with rum.
Barbadian families have made Falernum for generations. In an New York Times article, A.V. Stansfeld said that his distillery uses his great-great grandmother’s recipe dating back to the 1750s.
In researching this article, I found Darcy O’Neil’s outstanding article on Falernum. In that article, he debunks many of the earlier myths about Falernum. We used his article as a major source for this portion of the article, and thus want to acknowledge his work. During his research, he found a Philadelphia Inquirer article published on August 2, 1896, and titled “Falernum,” which included a recipe for Falernum. According to Darcy, the Falernum recipe is a punch style recipe. Darcy also encountered the same article published in the Kansas City Star on August 13, 1896, and titled “A West Indian Appetizer.” The interesting thing about the Kansas City Star article is the article’s reference to the mixing of Falernum with a teaspoon of wormwood bitters. Wormwood is the key ingredient in absinthe, which we previously wrote about.
While this article is about John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum, it’s important to briefly discuss Tiki since Falernum is a quintessential Tiki cocktail ingredient.
The birth of Tiki
In 1933, Earnest Raymond Beaumont Gantt opened a 24-seat bar in Hollywood with a driftwood sign reading “Don’s Beachcomber.” While elegant, tropical-themed nightclubs already existed in Hollywood, Don’s Beachcomber Café was different. Here, the drinks were the star of the establishment. Exotic drinks were presented in coconuts and other lavish vessels, and those drinks showcased flavors that were unknown to most patrons at that time.
Earnest's backstory is a fascinating one, and one day we’ll write about him and some of his famous cocktails. But today’s article is about Velvet Falernum so we will continue on that journey. With one last note, Earnest legally changed his name to Donn Beach. How awesome is that?
Tiki’s decline and the loss of Falernum
After decades of Tiki craze, the late 1960s brought about the decline of Tiki bars. There are many reasons for why the Tiki fad died out, but one stands out more than others—the Vietnam War. As Martin Cate stated in his book:
To spend a meal being served by a desultory white waiter in
a coolie in the Saigon Room of Kon-Tiki Ports, and
find yourself shipped out the next day to kill people
in coolie hats . . . needless to say, the allure was lost.
The loss of Tiki bars resulted in the loss of Falernum. Some companies, like the Sazarac company, stopped making Falernum altogether. Importers also dropped foreign brands, like John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum, because of the lack of demand.
It wasn't until the late 1990s, with the emergence of craft cocktail scene, that demand for Falernum increased enough for importers to take notice. Now, there’s a couple Falernums on the market, but we reach for John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum.
John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum
John D. Taylor claims to have invented Falernum in 1890, but it’s more likely that he was the first to commercialize the product. Still, John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum is the gold standard. It comes in at 11% ABV.
I ordered a case of the Sazerac [Falernum]. It was brown and maderized.
I didn’t know there was anything wrong until I tasted it. It was ghastly.
I wrote the stuff off at that point and just forgot about it. It wasn’t until
the ex-president of United Distillers was at my bar and ordered a rum
swizzle with falernum that I found out the truth. “That’s not falernum.
Give me your address; I’ll send you the real thing.” He had a place in Barbados
and sent me a six-pack case of 1½-liter John D. Taylor Velvet Falernum.
I loved it and whipped through that case in no time.
In 1993, the R.L. Seale Rum company acquired the John D. Taylor brand. Up to that point, the Seale’s family had been producing their own Falernum. However, once the family acquired John D. Taylor, they discontinued bottling the Seale family Falernum recipe.
Around the turn of the century, Dale DeGroff asked the importer Charmer to bring John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum to the US. According to Richard Seale, there was very limited success with Charmer. Seale then connected with the incredible importer, Eric Seed of Haus Alpenz, and Haus Alpenz began importing Velvet Falernum in 2009. Seed deserves the credit for putting Velvet Falernum in the hands of the right bars and restaurants. Demand took off from there.
R.L. Seale (Foursquare Distillery)
Since we owe R.L. Seale credit for exporting John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum, I’ll provide a few additional words about this fourth generation, family-owned Barbados distillery. Seale is famous for its rum. Some of its rum sells for triple the list price on the secondary market, so if you come across R.L. Seale rum, it’s worth a purchase.
And now, the cocktails!
Corn ‘N Oil
1/2 ounce John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum
2 ounces blended aged rum (preferably from Barbados)
2-4 dashes Angostura bitters
Add all the ingredients to an old-fashioned glass and fill with crushed ice. Stir.
There are numerous versions of the Corn ‘N Oil. In fact, the back label of John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum provides a recipe for a Corn ‘N Oil that is very close to the recipe above. Here, we follow Smuggler's Cove’s recipe. Smuggler’s Cove’s owners, Martin Cate and Rebecca Cate, wrote a phenomenal book, SMUGGLER’S COVE Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki, which not only provides great cocktail recipes but also details all things rum and Tiki. They spell the cocktail’s name differently (i.e., Corn and Oil), but the recipe above is 100% theirs. And it’s delicious!
Next up . . .
1/2 ounce John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum
1 1/2 ounce Green Chartreuse
3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
1 ounce pineapple juice
Sprig of mint
Combine all ingredients, except the nutmeg and mint, in a Collins glass. Fill the
glass with crushed ice until it is three quarters full. Swizzle. Top up
with additional ice to fill the glass. Grate nutmeg and add mint garnish.
In 2002, Marcovaldo Dionysos created the Chartreuse Swizzle for a Chartreuse sponsored cocktail competition. He won the competition and this delicious cocktail has since become a modern classic.
If you've been following us for a while, you already know our love for Green Chartreuse. If you're new to our website, or Chartreuse in general, please check out our article on this incredible elixir.
There are plenty of other cocktails that require Falernum. Maybe you’ve heard of the Zombie. Not only does that classic cocktail use Falernum, but it is also Donn Beach’s most famous connection.
Also, feel free to use John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum in lieu of simple syrup in recipes that call for simple. However, be cognizant of the clove, almond, and ginger flavors that Falernum brings to the party. Plus, Velvet Falernum adds booze so it's not an exact swap.
There are some, like the creator of the meme below, who look down on such a use of Falernum, but we’re not worried about that. It makes great drinks!
Sending codebreaking love,