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This week I was mixing cocktails, and faced with the usual choice of just dropping the lime slice into the glass, or elegantly spearing it on a cocktail pick. Those metal picks are good for spearing things, like putting an onion in your Gibson, but they don’t stir worth a damn. Too skinny.
Which got me thinking of the swizzle stick, and how they seem to have vanished. There was a piece recently in the Spectator about them, and there have been occasional noises in the past that they are making a comeback. But aside from the odd hipster bar, they have largely disappeared, along with other drink decorations like the classic cocktail umbrella.
Today’s anti-litter, anti-plastic straw world sees swizzle sticks and umbrellas as superfluous. Which is a shame. What kind of jaunty joy comes from the little umbrella on a brightly colored drink? It adds to the vibrancy of the presentation, and reminds you that you’re on vacation time now.
I am an avowed fan of the Tiki drink and go through the summer regularly ordering things like Piña Coladas and Mai Tais. I don’t recall when I last got one with an umbrella. A small wedge of pineapple on the edge of the glass if I’m lucky (Trader Vic must be turning in his grave). Swizzle sticks are also thin on the ground. Straws have to do double duty, as stirrer and sipper.
But in their heyday, those sticks also served as advertising. They were molded or printed with the bar’s name. People could take them home. Just like your Aunt Sylvia has an ashtray she swiped from a bar in Tijuana, and the coffee spoon that says Pan-Am on the handle, people had swizzle sticks labeled for bars and hotels all over the world. In the same way, everyone used to have restaurant matchbooks (and characters in crime dramas often helpfully used them to write down phone numbers or other clues). Today, there are websites that will even estimate the value of your old Don the Beachcomber swizzle sticks, and you can join a club for collectors.
They also weren’t just kitsch. Even high-end venues would commission their interior designer to create swizzle sticks matching the decor, much as a restaurant might commission china. Celebrity designer Dorothy Draper created these elegant swizzle sticks for her clients in the 1930s.
The availability of plastics created the opportunity to make these branded items affordable. But unlike matchbooks and souvenir ashtrays, swizzle sticks (like so much in the world of cocktails) are also much older than you’d think. The name “swizzle” goes back to the eighteenth century, a name given to stirred up drinks with ice. That led to the popular name of the swizzle stick tree, which grows in the Caribbean. Its twigs are perfect for stirring and imparting a spice flavor.
The Rum Swizzle is the national drink of Bermuda (where my father was born), but it was one of many swizzles from 300 years ago, when, like flips and nogs and punches, people made all kinds of variations with whatever they had on hand. Today recipes call for 2 types of rum, orange and pineapple juice, and bitters. The swizzling is to chill the drink by stirring the ice, so much that ice is meant to “form on the outside of the glass”. That’s an ambitious goal (I don’t think I’ve ever seen that, even with the chilliest mug for a mint julep: condensation, yes: ice, no). But getting ice in the Caribbean before modern refrigeration would have been a fancy thing indeed, and believing it was even forming on the outside of your frosty mug might have been like a mirage on a hot day.
I just pull ice out of the freezer: heck, I buy the special molds to make the “clear ice” like every pretentious drinker. It’s worth remembering what it must have been like to get some chunks of ice, chiseled off a block stored in a cellar, put into a pewter mug, and stir them hard with a fragrant twig. To feel the mug getting chilly, and sip the cool rum when you thought the heat would never leave.
And from that drink, and the tree, we got a whole world of little plastic mementos, of bars and restaurants long gone, and drinks no longer served.