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I don’t want to be a Swiz Kid

Posted in Guest Authors , on June 23, 2010 , Leave a Comment


When I was working in New York in the mid-1980s, I read a piece in the New York Times about the swizzle-stick. It said that the swizzle-stick was invented in Townsville in the middle of WW2. At that time Townsville was a staging post for American troops both as a point of departure for Macarthur’s Pacific campaign, and also as an R&R destination for American GIs. The article said that at that time the Yanks were mad about cocktails but that Townsville lacked supplies of the traditional cocktail ingredients – gin, vodka, whiskey, etc. The only alcohol readily available in Townsville was rum, distilled by CSR from Queensland cane sugar. And the only-known cocktail based on rum was a West Indian concoction called a “Swizzle” So that became the favourite drink in Townsville during the American presence. To stir the Swizzle, local bartenders used a piece of split sugar-cane. And this became known as a “swizzle-stick”. Hence the name of the now ubiquitous drinks accoutrement found in bars around the world.

This used to be one of my favourite stories for Australia is not renowned for being the origin of many of today’s essentials of life (let alone is Townsville, which is in sore need of some sort of notoriety) so to have been the birthplace of such an international object as the swizzle-stick seemed something to be marked, if not celebrated.

I even entertained visions of retiring to Townsville one day and opening The Big Swizzle Stick. To compete with other national attractions, such as The Big Banana, The Big Avocado, The Big Merino, or Paul Delprat’s Big Magnifying Glass of the Principality of Wy, and so on.

The Big Swizzle Stick would serve cocktails and other drinks, and tourists from far and wide would flock to it. But when I tried to check out this story on the Internet, I found that it was, alas, a furphy. According to Google, the swizzle-stick wasn’t invented in Townsville. In fact, in the long and tortured history of the swizzle-stick, there is no mention of Townsville, nor Australia, nor CSR. The actual origin of the swizzle-stick is shrouded in mystery (if not in an alcoholic haze) One source has it that the swizzle-stick originated in America in the 1930s, when someone invented a gadget for removing bubbles from sparkling wine (why anyone should want to do such a silly thing is an even greater mystery) Yet another authority – John Mariani’s Dictionary of Drink – claims that the first mention of the Swizzle, as a mixed drink, was in 1879 though there was no accompanying swizzle-stick cited in that source.

Another, and more credible, story is that the swizzle-stick was invented in the West Indies around 1930 where it was used to “swizzle”, or mix, ice and rum together in a glass or jug. Bartenders apparently employed the dried stem of a tropical plant to do this and this became known as a “swizzle-stick”, and the resulting drink a “Swizzle” (ie, the drink – according to this derivation – was named after the implement, as the paella and tagine were, not the other way round)

Yet another story has it that a Swizzle was not invented in the West Indies at all but was already a popular drink in the USA well before Prohibition (which tends to give some credibility to the 1879 dating) Originally, the Swizzle consisted of any alcohol, mixed with lime or lemon, plus sugar, soda and perhaps a dash of bitters, made in large pitchers and served with ice in a highball glass.  Indeed, modern-day Swizzle recipes seem to require a number of standard elements…alcohol (preferably white rum, but anything potent will suffice); sugar (or other sweetening agent); something tart (lime or lemon juice); bitters (of one sort or another); soda (or other diluting non-alcoholic liquid); plus ice and, of course, a swizzle-stick It can be served in any sort of glass, but tall thin ones are usually preferred (it is hard to get a swizzle-stick to stand upright in the regulation cocktail glass) The purpose of the swizzle-stick, incidentally, is not mere decoration. It is intended to be functional for this type of cocktail is meant to be stirred, not shaken, and so needs a stirring implement for its composition

Contemporary swizzle-sticks come in a multitude of types, not just the red or green plastic ones we are only too familiar with In fact, they come in so many different shapes and forms that people collect them, as if they were stamps, or teddy bears. One lady in America claims to have amassed a collection of more than 50,000 different swizzle-sticks, from every corner of the globe. Today, however, swizzle-sticks are not only to be found in bars, or drinks.

LATE NEWS: My ongoing research, on your behalf, has now taken an interesting new twist for it turns out that the Swizzle, and its stick, go much further back. To 1586 to be preciseI. It seems that the Swizzle is in reality a more-recent name for the much earlier Mojito which itself was originally a concoction called a Daroque pronounced “darroch” (now you think I’m kidding you, don’t you? – but I assure you that I am not) And this in turn was named, not after one of my ancestors who were, coming from Islay, more into malt whisky but after a chap called Richard Drake who helped his namesake (and perhaps kin) Sir Francis Drake harass the Spanish Main in the 16th century on behalf of Good Queen Bess. On a visit to Cuba in 1586, so the story goes, Richard Drake came across a local drink made from a primitive form of rum which was mixed with sugar from local sugar-cane, with lime-juice added, to produce a potable drink and which was called a Daroque (apparently after the Cuban pronunciation of “Drake”)

However, it gets more interesting than that. For have you ever wondered where we get the name “cocktail” from? No? Then let me enlighten you. The Daroque was originally stirred into action with a wooden spoon to which the local Cubans, to give the exercise a bit of a flourish, attached a feather the tail feather of a cock Hence “cocktail”

And it is this implement that is the real precursor of the swizzle-stick.