Earnest Gantt, the inventor of the tiki bar, was exceptionally cagey about the drinks poured at Don the Beachcomber. Patrons knew his mai tais, nui nuis and Zombies were fruity and boozy, but the New Orleans native refused to disclose the recipes.
“(He) kept his original 1934 recipe a closely guarded secret — to the point of encoding it,” writes cocktail archeologist Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, who’s largely responsible for the current tiki revival. “The code numbers corresponded to numbers on bottles in his bar, which had no other identification; the actual contents of the bottles were a complete mystery to the employees who mixed them.”
Berry spent more than a decade reconstructing the original recipe for the Zombie, the cocktail that catapulted tiki to stardom. But he knew from the outset that falernum was likely to be among the ingredients: The spiced citrus solution is essential to quasi-tropical drinks.
Falernum probably originated in Barbados. Gantt likely encountered it while traveling through the Caribbean in the late 1920s. A few decades earlier, The Philadelphia Inquirer had described falernum as a mix of rum, lime or lemon juice, sugar and water.
But falernum evolved according to who was mixing it. It was sometimes a kind of liqueur, as the paper suggested, and sometimes a nonalcoholic syrup. Its color ranged from white to tan, and bartenders added cloves, ginger and almonds in different proportions.
As for Gantt, he refused to disclose what made his falernum special. “It was more of a secret ingredient for Donn Beach,” Berry told Punch Drink, using the name Gantt adopted after his bar caught on. “It wasn’t really popularized by him, more kept close to his chest.”
Voodoo Tiki Bar (Mai Tai, $10)
Where to buy it
Fee Brothers, John D. Taylor and B.G. Reynolds make prepackaged falernums, but producing your own version is a manageable do-it-yourself project. As Serious Eats puts it, “Falernum is a great DIY candidate for everyone, not just cocktails geeks. It can be hard to find commercially, yet it’s cheap and simple to make at home.”
Where there’s rum, there’s usually falernum, so it’s no surprise that The Ordinary has made liberal use of falernum. It’s also shown up at FIG and The Grocery.