Words by Simon Difford
Falernum (pronounced 'Fah-Learn-Um') is a sweet liqueur from Barbados. Syrupy in consistency, falernum is always made with lime and sugar but is usually also flavoured with ingredients such as cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and almonds. Often used in cocktails, falernum can be clear or have a light green/yellow to golden amber tint.
Non-alcoholic 'falernum' sugar syrups with a similar flavour profile to the liqueur are also available but traditionally falernum has at least 11% alc./vol. to give body and act as a preservative.
Falernum is believed to date back to 1700s Barbados where it was made at sugar estate distilleries with each estate having its own recipe. However, early recipes are thought to have simply comprised rum, sugar and lime juice so basically a classic punch and, as with punch, the alcoholic strength was low with just enough alcohol to act as a preservative. Tradition dictates that a punch has a touch of spice and the addition of spices to falernum is thought to have been introduced as a point of difference between producers, perhaps when falernum started to be bottled commercially.
Charles Dickens Jr. references falernum in his 1892 book All the Year Round (Page 257), "In spirituous drinks, the one most relished in Barbados is the "bitter," of which there are two distinct varieties. The proper basis of both is "falernum," a curious liqueur composed from rum and lime-juice. To a very varying quantity of this is added a proportion of extract of wormwood for the "green bitter," and of angostura for the "red," also water to taste. All that now remains to do is add a modicum of well pounded ice, and to beat up the whole with a "swizzlestick," which latter is made from a plant like our hemlock, and used by inserting its umbelliferous top in the fluid, and removing the stem rapidly between the palms of the hands. The result is a frothy, cool, and most seductive draught, which, taken in strict moderation, seems to have a good tonic effect when the system is a little below par, The only difficulty is to get people to take it in that moderation."
Mrs. H Graham Yearwood's 1911 book, West Indian and Other Recipes includes a recipe [we don't have a copy to verify] "For 30 gallons of falernum: 9 gal. rum, 3 gal. lime juice, 1 gal. milk, ½ gal brandy, 56 lbs. sugar, ½ oz. bitter almond, ¼ oz. mace. To fine it, add 1 gal. of milk." The milk in this recipe was to aid clarification, replaced by modern filtration equipment in today's recipes. The inclusion of brandy has led some to compare falernum to curaçao.
Origin of the name
Falernum probably takes its name from the ancient Roman wine falernian (falernum in Latin) but there is a more colourful legend behind the origins of the name around someone with a broad Barbadian accent answering, "you have fuh learn um", meaning to say 'you have to learn it', when questioned, "what the recipe was." This is recorded in a piece published, 14th April 1982, in The New York Times titled "In The Lore Of Barbados Distilled Rum". Writer, Paula Dietz, describes rum making at Mount Gay Distilleries Ltd after interviewing Darnley D. Ward and his brother Lisle, then aged 72 and 77 respectively, they are described as being "at the helm" of the distillery. Their father, Aubrey Fitz-Osbert Ward, bought the distillery 1918 and his A. F. Ward signature remained part of Mount Gay rum's branding into the 2000s.
"At maturity, the barrels are emptied into large wooden vats for the blending process that makes several Mount Gay brands. "We add deionized water, redistilled rum, caramel for coloring and one the special formulas," said Piercy Ward. One of these formulas is for a liqueur called Falernum, a blend based on an old Barbadian housewife's recipe. As Piercy Ward tells it, "Once, when a woman was asked for the ingredients, she answered in the dialect, 'Haf a learn um' - 'Have to learn how it's done.' Hence the name." Of the formula, all that mr. Ward would reveal is that it has almond essence and angostura."