Spirits: Stick this in your swizzle

spirits swizzle
Derek Brown, the bartender at the Passenger and the Columbia Room in Northwest, recently taught a class on making swizzles. (Evy Mages for The Washington Post)
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By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Here is a perfect example of why you shouldn't completely trust Wikipedia. The entry for "swizzle stick" reads: "Swizzle sticks are small sticks placed in cocktails to hold fruit or stir the drink. Commonly made of plastic, the swizzle portion of the swizzle stick name originated from the Caribbean cocktail, Rum Swizzle." It goes on to credit the invention of the swizzle stick to one Jay Sindler, "an engineer" who in 1933 "was looking for a way to get the olive out of his martini without using his fingers."

Is that true? A little bit, but mostly no.

A real swizzle stick comes from a tree that grows in the Caribbean called a swizzlestick tree (or Quararibea turbinata, for those who require genus and species). It's about six inches long and has several little spikes at the bottom, sticking out radially like bicycle spokes. The swizzle stick swizzles the category of drinks called swizzles, which date at least to the late 18th century, when they were popular in the British colonies of the Caribbean. The name might come from a cross between a switchel (an even older drink involved molasses spiked with booze) and the word "fizz." But no one really knows.

"The swizzle stick is just a primitive blender," says Derek Brown, the bartender at the Passenger and the Columbia Room in Northwest, who last week taught a class on making swizzles. Although Brown and I, and a number of bartenders in Washington, have real swizzle sticks, they are very difficult to come by outside of the Caribbean. "It's a great mystery how you get these," Brown says.

Trust me: I've looked, fruitlessly. Fortunately, a standard bar spoon, with a long, thin handle, works equally well.

Now, I don't mean to geek out on you, but it's important to understand what a swizzle stick is and what it is not if you are ever going to make a swizzle. And I suggest that you do. For me, they are miles better than, say, mojitos. "What most people do with a mojito is an abomination," Brown says.

While a rum swizzle is the most common formulation, you can make a swizzle with any strong spirit. Brown's specialty is the delicious, refreshing Chartreuse Swizzle, which he tweaked from a recipe created by Marcovaldo Dionysos at Clock Bar in San Francisco. A basic swizzle calls for spirit, lime juice, falernum and perhaps a little mint -- not much different, really, from a rickey or a julep. At some point, pineapple juice got inserted into the swizzle, which is something that rum expert Wayne Curtis, author of "And a Bottle of Rum," deplores: "I have nothing against pineapple, but it doesn't belong in a swizzle. I blame the Bermudians, who somewhere along the line decided the Bermuda Rum Swizzle [which calls for pineapple juice] was the true and correct swizzle. Simpler the better is my swizzle philosophy."

Although I don't have a problem with pineapple, I agree with Curtis about simplicity. The secret of swizzles boils down to two things: crushed ice and technique. Crushed ice is important because you build a swizzle in the glass, and crushed ice brings down the temperature of a drink much faster. On the other hand, it also dilutes the drink faster. That's why Brown mostly uses strong spirits such as higher-proof rums, whiskey, Chartreuse.

As for technique, you build a swizzle slowly, adding ingredients, then ice, then swizzling a little, then more ice. To swizzle, you position the swizzle stick or bar spoon between your palms and roll it rapidly between your palms, back and forth. You're looking for the glass to frost with ice, just as with a mint julep. Then you top with more ice, like an adult snow cone, and dashes of bitters for aromatics, along with a mint sprig, and serve it with a straw. A swizzle is a drink not to be rushed in the making or sipping.

"Some of the best cocktails are the ones made in a slow, methodical way," Brown said. "This is a simple drink, but it shows extra effort and care."

I could make a crack here about Wikipedia, but now that I have my swizzle in hand, I'll resist.


Chartreuse Swizzle

Rum Swizzle

Follow Wilson on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/boozecolumnist. His book, "Boozehound," will be published in September by Ten Speed Press.

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