I can't tell you how sick my wife is of hearing me say, with utter seriousness, the word "Swizzle." For the past few weeks, I've been researching this category of West Indies cocktail—talking with bartenders about Swizzles, soliciting recipes for Swizzles, sampling Swizzles. Each time I mentioned a new tidbit of information on the topic, my better half would roll her eyes and walk into the other room.
You can't blame her. It's a funny word. And cocktail people can start to sound a little touched in the head when they start talking with deadly earnestness about things like garnishes and the right kind of ice. Still, she was impressed when she finally sat down and tried a properly made Queen's Park Swizzle.
I was fortunate enough to write about Swizzles for the New York Times Summer Drinks issue. Here's the piece.
It’s Not So Mysterious: The Secret Is in the Swizzle
By Robert Simonson
WHEN Katie Stipe, a bartender at the Clover Club in Boerum Hill, gets an order for a mojito, she recommends that the customer try a Queens Park Swizzle instead.
“We steer them to it as a far superior version of the same sort of drink,” she said. Indeed, the cocktails share many ingredients: rum, citrus, sugar, mint. So why bother converting a customer? What makes one different from the other? Well, the swizzling, of course.
A Queens Park Swizzle is the best-known representative of a crushed-ice-laden and slightly mysterious cocktail category. The genre was born in the West Indies, probably in the 19th century, but has become increasingly popular in New York bars of late. Among other noteworthy examples are the Bermuda Swizzle (still wildly popular on that island) and the Barbados Red Rum Swizzle, a onetime staple at Trader Vic’s.
These drinks are not shaken or stirred, but rather swizzled with a genuine swizzle stick. Now, if you’re picturing one of those colorful plastic doohickeys that bars and resorts stick into their drinks as a combination advertisement and souvenir, stop right there.
The implement in question is an actual stick. It is snapped off a tree native to the Caribbean. Botanists call it Quararibea turbinata, but it is known to locals as the swizzle stick tree. The sticks are about six inches, with small prongs sticking out at the end, like the spokes of a wheel without the rim, and they are used as a kind of natural, manually operated Mixmaster.
These are halcyon days for behind-the-bar theatrics, and nothing lends the bartender’s art a touch of razzmatazz like a deftly deployed swizzle stick. “It takes a little showmanship,” said Stephen Remsberg, a New Orleans lawyer known for his extensive rum collection (1,300 bottles) and knowledge of rum drinks. “You insert the swizzle stick in the drink. And with both hands moving in coordination, simultaneously backwards and forwards, you simply rotate the shaft of the swizzle stick between your palms as quickly as you can.”
It is believed by some that the success of any swizzle lies entirely in the mixing prowess of the bartender.
“There really isn’t any difference between a simple rum punch and a swizzle except the technique used for making them,” Mr. Remsberg said. All agree that one thing happens when the drink is prepared in this way — and has to happen, for it to be a swizzle. “With the ideal swizzle you get a nice frost on the outside of the glass,” Ms. Stipe said.
Beyond that, what the method contributes to the drink — aside from a lively sideshow — is somewhat open to debate. Wayne Curtis, a cocktail authority and the author of “And a Bottle of Rum,” suspects that the stick’s significance is mainly cultural and ritualistic. Not that that’s a bad thing. “Ritual is fine,” Mr. Curtis said. “There’s a lot of ritual in the cocktail world.”
Richard Boccato — who put the Queens Park Swizzle on the menu at Dutch Kills, a new bar in Long Island City, Queens, that he owns with Sasha Petraske — thinks there’s more at stake. “The act in the swizzling is what makes the drink aesthetically pleasing to the guest,” Mr. Boccato said. “They enjoy watching it, for sure, but it’s also something that integral to the preparation. It’s very much what brings the drink together.”
But Mr. Petraske regards swizzling as simply a more controlled way of stirring. “It’s a way of not disturbing the muddled stuff that’s at the bottom,” he said. “Aside from that, I can’t think of any difference it makes.”
The swizzle is just that kind of cocktail. The more you chase after its essence, the less you understand. The cocktail expert David Wondrich said, “Vague answers are all you’re going to get.” That’s perhaps just as well, because it seems a shame to invest too much analysis in a practice so pleasingly theatrical, and in a drink that’s so easygoing and refreshing. “It’s almost like an adult snow cone,” Ms. Stipe said.
There’s one additional mystery surrounding the swizzle. Despite the demands of the cocktail craze, a real swizzle stick is not easily found in New York. Nearly every bar that serves swizzles gets the needed tools through some Caribbean connection. Mr. Boccato brings some sticks back from Martinique every time he visits his father, who lives nearby on St. Lucia.
“I’m surprised no one’s come out with a plastic version,” Mr. Curtis said.
While you're at it, take a look at the other fine articles in the section, including a A to Z guide to home bartending and a look at the lives of sober bartenders. And Eric Asimov looks at the problems in New York's beer scene.