We’ve written a bit in the past on the differences between almond orgeat syrup and traditional falernum liqueur, when it comes to tiki drinks, so you’ll have to forgive me for repeating a little bit here. Since that previous piece was published, only a month ago, I’ve sampled several new brands of falernum, which made me want to dive more deeply into this particular tiki building block. Little known to the average consumer, falernum (or “velvet falernum”) is one of the most indispensable ingredients in the world of of rum cocktails, and the commercially available brands differ in ways that are quite substantial.
First, though, let’s remind ourselves of what falernum is, and how it differs from the similar orgeat.
Both orgeat and falernum are sweet, syrupy concoctions used to add complexity in many classic tiki drink recipes, and although both often contain almonds, that’s about the extent of the actual similarities. Orgeat is the simpler of the two, a typically non-alcoholic syrup that is made with almonds, sugar and rose or orange flower water, which gives it a profile that is quite nutty and sweet, with a marzipan-like almond flavor and accents of citrus or florals. It’s a must-have for classic drinks like the Mai Tai, which is defined by an undercurrent of nutty orgeat flavors playing off a blend of rums.
Falernum, on the other hand, is an invention of Barbados that classically involves almonds as well, but its flavor is much more defined by a plethora of spices and additional flavorings. Classic ingredients in falernum include lime, ginger and allspice, but it may also include cloves, cinnamon and many other spice or fruit components. Recently, I’ve tasted three falernum brands that each have quite different lists of what you’d no doubt refer to as “botanicals” if this was gin. Falernum is also set apart by the fact that most of the bottles are alcoholic liqueurs rather than non-alcoholic syrups, but again there’s much variation here. Alcoholic falernums may be weaker than table wine, around 10% ABV, but they’re also found at strengths that approach base liquors, at 35% ABV or more. Indeed, many commercial falernums are simply rum-based, which makes sense given that this is how they’re likely to be used. It’s considered an integral ingredient in classic rum drinks such as the Zombie, the Jet Pilot, or the Corn ‘n Oil.
You will also see the words “velvet falernum” on some brands, which makes some drinkers erroneously believe that “velvet” falernum is a different style of liqueur. Instead, this is simply a variation in labeling, referring to the smooth, silky and thick textural consistency of falernum.
With that said, here are three quite different brands of falernum I’ve been sampling recently, to give you an idea of how versatile this ingredient can be.
John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum is a bit like the Angostura Bitters of the falernum world—the most important historic brand, and the first one that a consumer is likely to encounter by virtue of it being the most widespread and common. It’s been produced since 1890, currently at Barbados’ beloved Foursquare Distillery, and is the most likely commercial go-to that any given bar mixing up tiki drinks is likely to possess. It’s one of the lighter falernums in terms of alcoholic strength, weighing in at 11% ABV, but it’s by no means lacking in assertiveness.
On the nose, this falernum is very spice forward, with a heady blast of allspice and clove, along with hints of citrus. It has a musty, spicy quality that feels somehow antiquarian—it’s like you’re stepping through a portal, backward in time just putting your nose to the glass. It evokes a crowded spice market, like something from an old adventure serial.
On the palate, it’s very syrupy and very sweet, with a likewise intense level of spice. This is extremely Christmasy in tone, like an essence of yuletide cheer, with powerful flavors of allspice and clove, along with a relatively restrained thread of lime zest and hints of nutty almond. It’s reminiscent of a very rich simple syrup, enhanced with copious amounts of spice. If you want to add spice notes and sweetness to your tiki drinks, John D. Taylor’s is clearly one of the most efficient ways to do it.
This premium price-point falernum is newer on the market, from San Francisco-based Geijer Spirits, distributed in the U.S. by Vision Wine & Spirits and recently available via Total Wine. The company makes an array of liquors and liqueurs via the “California” brand, including California Fernet, California Amaro, California Aqua Vitae and others.
This is a bit of a head-scratcher in some ways, saying that it’s based on “proprietary Jamaican-style rum” made in the U.S.A. (presumably that means high-ester rum?), and containing an array of flavorings not found in old-school falernums such as the John D. Taylor. The full list of flavorings in this case include lime peel, lime juice, ginger, almond, cloves, allspice, cardamom, bitter orange peel, cacao nibs, and sweet orange peel, which the company says results in a product “that will not only work in your classic Tiki cocktails—it will also work as a base and modifier in all kinds of cocktails.” It feels like the concept here is perhaps not to be bound by the tiki association. It’s bottled at a much higher 30% ABV, compared with the previous product.
On the nose, this is immediately quite different from the John D. Taylor, having much less spice dominance. Instead, the California Falernum is brighter and more balanced, with assertive citrus impressions of lemon and lime, along with very upfront notes of stem ginger. On the palate, these impressions follow through—lots of lemon-lime and orange, and a refreshing ginger kick, and correspondingly less dependence upon clove and allspice. The texture is lighter, and it’s both less syrupy and less sweet than the John D. Taylor, despite the higher proof. Overall, this is a more delicate and balanced falernum, although it is defined by ginger to my palate. It’s slightly tingly on the tongue, with hints of allspice and ginger candy, but the proof point is hidden pretty well when all is said and done.
Ultimately, this strikes me as a more delicately flavored falernum for drinks where you don’t want the spice profile to register as dominant. Of the three, it’s the easiest to sample neat thanks to the lower sweetness level, but despite some consumers classically drinking falernum on ice, I’m still far more likely to use it as a cocktail component.
BroVo Spirits is a “collaborative, experimental distillery based in Woodinville, Washington, that makes hand-crafted delicious liqueurs, amaro and vermouth that you can sip or mix,” developing their product in collaboration with notable bartenders, bars and mixologists. Lucky Falernum is one of the most popular (and apparently lucky) of those products, having been developed by Danny Shapiro of well-known Chicago gin bar Scofflaw.
Here again, we see significant deviation from the falernum norm, incorporating a number of ingredients that aren’t present in either of the other bottles, including pineapple, nutmeg and star anise. The base is a blend of high-proof “cane neutral spirit” and legit, 3-year-old Barbados rum, which is separated into two tanks. In one tank, BroVo infuses fruit, including orange, lime and pineapple, while in the other they infuse the control spices of ginger, star anise, nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice. The two tanks can then be blended together in order to dial in the desired flavor profile—an interesting twist on the process, and one that yields a particularly powerful dram. Of course, the proof point is also a factor there: Lucky Falernum is a heavy hitter at 35% ABV. This is clearly intended as a cocktail ingredient for those who don’t want anything the least bit watered down.
On the nose, this one is complex and intriguing. You certainly get a darker impression here, with a greater suggestion of caramelized sugars, aged rum, and even a little bit of oak. As for the spices, the anise note pops up in an unexpected way, suddenly putting me in the mind of absinthe, another spirit we wrote about in great detail recently.
On the palate, Lucky Falernum is explosive to say the least. This is very strongly flavored stuff, with a very high level of residual sweetness and spice, which likely makes it more naturally suited as a cocktail component than as a liqueur for neat drinking. Allspice and clove are here on the palate in a big way, as are sweet, fruity impressions of something like pineapple upside down cake. The anise also stands out again in a distinctive way, however, which gives it a quality that certainly may remind one of absinthe. This might make Lucky Falernum a natural contribution to classic cocktails like the Zombie, which traditionally would include a bar spoon of absinthe or pastis for greater herbal complexity and balancing bitterness.
Regardless, Lucky Falernum does not play around, and is most suited for strongly flavored drinks where you want the character of the falernum to shine through.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.