December 3, 2013
Elitzur Eitan has no desire to ever live within pre-1967 Israel. Until 2005, he lived in the Gaza Strip settlement of Gush Katif, which was forcibly evacuated under the leadership of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Now, he lives deep in the West Bank, where he works at a vineyard on Givat Harel, a tiny settlement overlooking the ruins of ancient Shiloh and the red-roofed houses of the modern settlement that shares its name. “Places like this are where Zionism still lives,” he says.
They are also, surprisingly, places where excellent wines are being made. Gvaot, the boutique winery where Eitan works as a foreman, produces some of the best kosher wines in the world. Gvaot, which was established in 2005, produces and sells roughly 30,000 bottles of kosher wine per year. The medals lining the back wall of Gvaot’s tiny tasting room testify to the quality of its products: a 2006 Double Gold Medal in the Terravino Mediterranean International Wine Challenge for making the best wine in the $27-$36.99 category and a 2008 award in the same contest for “Best Israeli Kosher Wine.”
Gvaot has won over Jonathan Livni, the chief wine critic for the mass-market Yediot Ahronot newspaper, and was also a favorite of Daniel Rogov, a prominent Israeli wine critic who died in 2011. Rogov refused to set foot in the West Bank, but he consistently gave high marks to Gvaot’s reds. Livni, a retired military judge who starred in the documentary The Law in These Parts, is a committed left-winger who believes Israel should withdraw entirely from the West Bank. But he nevertheless describes himself as huge fan of Gvaot and a handful of other West Bank wineries, which he says benefit from the region’s high altitude, rocky soil and dry air, characteristics found nearly nowhere else in Israel. “I think good wine trumps politics,” he says. “And there are a lot of good wines from the occupied territories.”
But the vineyards in places like Shiloh are also among the biggest reasons to doubt that the new round of American-brokered peace talks will go anywhere. Secretary of State John Kerry managed to persuade Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to release more than 100 Palestinian prisoners, but Netanyahu flatly rejected the idea of freezing construction in West Bank settlements like Shiloh or Givat Harel, even though they are so deep into the West Bank that they would almost certainly need to be evacuated as part of any peace deal.
Gvaot’s chief backer is Daniella Weiss, an activist who has spent decades at the helm of pro-settler groups like Gush Emunim and the Women in Green, arguing, loudly, that Jews have the right to live anywhere in the West Bank. “It’s the soil, the wonderful soil,” she said by way of explaining why Gvaot’s wines were so good, in a phone interview from her home in the settlement of Kedumim, a tiny village in an even more remote part of the West Bank than Givat Harel. “That’s what makes the grapes so special and that’s what makes the wines so special.”
Weiss also happens to be the mother-in-law of Shivi Drori, Gvaot’s chief wine maker, who has a doctorate in plant molecular biology from Hebrew University. “For every person who won’t buy wines because of where they come from, three want to buy it precisely because of where it comes from,” Drori said during an interview last month at the winery. Outside, the vineyard’s sloping trellises of grapes swayed gently in the winds rustling down from nearby hills.
Drori, a soft-spoken man who also teaches at a local university, founded Gvaot in 2005. He had begun planting grapes on Givat Harel years earlier with the initial idea of selling them to other wineries. When the first harvest came in, he found himself reluctant to part with the grapes. “I thought, ‘why lose these very good grapes? We should make a winery of our own,’” he recalled. “So we did.”
Weiss and her husband Amnon provided the millions of shekels Drori needed to get the winery off the ground, and it was successful with critics like Rogov almost immediately. “He succeeded in separating his own beliefs from the professional views he gave to the readers,” Dror, 40, said. “Not all of the critics do.”
But Weiss sees the vineyard as another tool for extending Jewish control over Shiloh and other parts of the West Bank. She believes Gvaot can provide much-needed jobs for local settlers, making it easier for them to stay in the region. More fundamentally, she believes that re-establishing Jewish life in and around Shiloh is a religious obligation.
“Everything that we do is about settling more Jews in Israel,” she says. “We have the homes and we have the people. Now we just need to build more of an economy.”
Weiss’s political beliefs permeate every aspect of the winery. Hundreds of American Evangelicals flood into the West Bank during each wine-harvesting season to work as volunteer grape pickers, but the winery refuses on principle to employ workers who aren’t Jewish.
Lior Amihai, a senior analyst for Peace Now, says that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators broadly agree future withdrawals would be based on land swaps allowing Israel to annex the areas near the Green Line where most settlers live in exchange for giving the new state of Palestine an equivalent amount of terrain that that is currently part of Israel. The problem, he says, is that Shiloh is so remote that Israel would need to give up an enormous amount of terrain to keep it.
“It’s really, really far from the Green Line,” Amihai says. “Israel doesn’t have enough land to swap. There are settlements whose future fate is known, but Shiloh is not one of them. There are no scenarios for a two-state solution in which Shiloh stays under Israeli sovereignty.”
Weiss says she’s not concerned. More than 340,000 Jews now live in West Bank settlements, and she argues that removing even a fraction of them would be politically and logistically impossible. Weiss doesn’t think the current talks stand much chance of success, a position shared, reluctantly, by Amihai and others on the Israeli left. “I call the Green Line the ‘Obama Line,’” she says. “Everything with him is settlers, everything is occupation. The reality is that we’ve become too big to move.”
Weiss has big plans for the winery, including building a restaurant for the busloads of tourists – including large numbers of religious Americans – who visit the winery and usually leave with bottles of red, whites or rosés. She hopes to begin construction this fall and have it open by the next wine-growing season.
Drori, the winemaker, is equally bullish about Gvaot’s future. Like his mother-in-law, he dismisses the chances for a peace deal that would require abandoning his corner of the West Bank. Drori says that he has good relations with the Palestinians living in nearby villages and insists that they are doing better under Israeli control than they would as citizens of an independent state. “The Palestinians are very happy,” he says. “You can see them walking with baby carriages, you see them with iPhones, you see them with satellite dishes. They’re prospering, and I’m quite happy about it. It’s good for us.”
Sitting in Gvaot’s small tasting room, Drori brings out a full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, one of Gvaot’s most expensive wines. He swirls the glass around gently, brings it to his mouth, and takes a long sip. He said it was a favorite of Rogov, the wine critic. Then Drori stands up, shakes hands, and heads for the door. It’s just after 11 AM, and he has a busy day ahead. Drori and the graduate students who work in his lab at a nearby university are trying to identify and ultimately recreate the types of grapes that would have existed in the region during Biblical times. “We will have unique Israeli grapes, some for eating, some for wine-making,” Drori says. “Maybe in 3 to 4 years we can actually sit here and have a glass of true Israeli wine.”
This story was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting
November 5, 2013
Highlighted by its distinctive gold-yellow label, a bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne is hard to ignore. In 2012, it was the second highest selling brand of champagne in the world, with 1,474,000 nine-liter cases sold worldwide. But Veuve Clicquot wasn’t always so successful: if it weren’t for the efforts of a cunning 19th-century business mind, the champagne might never have existed. That remarkable mind belonged to the eponymous Widow (veuve in French0) Clicquot, one of the world’s first international businesswomen, who brought her wine business back from the brink of destruction and created the modern champagne market in the process.
The Widow Clicquot was born Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, daughter of an affluent textile industrialist in Reims, France. Born in the years leading up to the French Revolution, Barbe-Nicole’s childhood was heavily influenced by the political leanings of her father, Ponce Jean Nicolas Philippe Ponsardin, which switched from monarchist to Jacobin as the tide of the Revolution turned against the monarchy. Through his shrewd politics, Barbe-Nicole’s family was able to escape the Revolution relatively unscathed, a rarity for an affluent bourgeoisie family.
Next door to Hôtel Ponsardin, the large family estate that Barbe-Nicole grew up on, lived the Clicquot family, under the patriarch Philippe. Philippe Clicquot also ran a successful textile business, making him the chief competitor to Barbe-Nicole’s father. In an attempt to consolidate the power of their two businesses, Mr. Ponsardin and Mr. Clicquot did what any shrewd business owner in the 18th century would have done: married their children. In 1798, when she was 21 years old, Barbe-Nicole married Francois Clicquot, Philippe Clicquot’s only son–the marriage was akin to an arranged marriage, a business deal devised by two industrial leaders in the small town of Reims.
Still, as the two embarked on their life together, a real partnership seemed to grow between them. Francois was a lively young man with large aspirations: instead of taking over his father’s textile industry, as his father wanted him to, Francois was interested in growing his family’s small wine business. Up to that point, the Clicquot’s family’s involvement in the wine industry constituted a minor portion of the family business. Philippe often only sold wine as an afterthought to his large textile business, adding bottles of still or sparkling white wine to orders only to round them out (once a boat had been commissioned and paid for, Philippe wanted to make sure he was getting his money’s worth). Though sparkling wine had been invented, the Champagne region was more famous for its still white wines, which Philippe would buy from wine producers and export on an as-needed basis. Philippe Clicquot had no intention of expanding its wine business to production, but Francois had a different plan.
Francois announced to his father his intention of expanding the family’s wine business, but was met with disapproval. As France plunged into the Napoleonic Wars, Philippe didn’t see wine as a profitable endeavor. Francois dismissed his father’s concerns, and set about learning the wine trade, along with his young wife. While Francois had little knowledge of wine-making, the craft ran in Barbe-Nicole’s family: one of her grandmothers had been part of a wine making operation generations earlier. Still, the two set out to learn the industry from the ground-up together.
Despite their apparent passion for the industry, Philippe Clicquot’s judgement seems to have been correct: their champagne business stalled and looked ready to collapse. In 1805, six years after their marriage, Francois fell suddenly ill with a fever; 12 days later, he was dead. Rumors swirled around the town that his death had been a suicide caused by despair at the failing business, though other accounts attribute his death to an infectious fever such as typhoid. Both Barbe-Nicole and Philippe were devastated by Francois’ death, and Philippe announced that by the end of the year, he would end the wine business.
Barbe-Nicole had other plans, and approached her father-in-law with a bold proposition.
“Barbe-Nicole goes to her father-in-law and says, ‘I’d like to risk my inheritance, I’d like you to invest the equivalent of an extra million dollars in me running this wine business.’ And he says yes,” explains Tilar Mazzeo, author of The Widow Clicquot. “It’s surprising that he would let a woman who has no business training take this on, and what it speaks to is that Philippe Clicquot was no fool. He understood how very keenly intelligent his daughter-in-law was.”
Keenly intelligent, perhaps, but at that point, Barbe-Nicole had been unsuccessful in selling champagne wine. So Philippe agreed under one condition: Barbe-Nicole would go through an apprenticeship, after which she would be able to run the business herself–if she proved her abilities. She entered into an apprenticeship with the well-known winemaker Alexandre Fourneaux, and for four years tried to make the dying wine business grow. It didn’t work, and at the end of her apprenticeship, the business was just as broke as before. So Barbe-Nicole went to her father-in-law a second time asking for money, and for a second time, Philippe Clicquot invested in his daughter-in-law’s business.
“That’s the time that comes right at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, when she has in her cellars what will become the legendary vintage of 1811, and she’s about ready to go bankrupt,” Mazzeo explains. Facing bankruptcy, Barbe-Nicole took a huge business gamble: she knew that the Russian market, as soon as the Napoleonic Wars ended, would be thirsty for the kind of champagne she was making–an extremely sweet champagne that contained nearly 300 grams of sugar (about double that of today’s sweet dessert wines, like a Sauterne). At this moment in champagne history, the champagne market was fairly small–but Russians were early enthusiasts. If she could appeal to their burgeoning desire for champagne and corner that market, Barbe-Nicole believed that success would be hers.
There was only one problem: the naval blockades that had crippled commercial shipping during the wars. Barbe-Nicole smuggled the vast majority of her best wine out of France as far as Amsterdam, where it waited for peace to be declared. As soon as peace was declared, the shipment made its way to Russia, beating her competitors by weeks. Soon after her champagne debuted in Russia, Tsar Alexander I announced that it was the only kind that he would drink. Word of his preference spread throughout the Russian court, which was essentially ground-zero for international marketing.
“She goes from being a very minor player to a name that everyone knows, and everybody wants her champagne,” Mazzeo says. Suddenly, the demand for her champagne increased so much that she was worried she would not be able to fill all the orders. Champagne making, at that time, was an incredibly tedious and wasteful business, and Barbe-Nicole realized that she would need to improve the process if she was going to keep up with the new demand for her product.
Champagne is made by adding sugar and live yeast to bottles of white wine, creating what is known as secondary fermentation. As the yeast digests the sugar, the bi-products created are alcohol and carbon dioxide, which give the wine its bubbles. There’s only one problem: when the yeast consumes all the sugar, it dies, leaving a winemaker with a sparkling bottle of wine–and dead yeast in the bottom. The dead yeast was more than unappetizing–it left the wine looking cloudy and visually unappealing. The first champagne makers dealt with this by pouring the finished product from one bottle to another in order to rid the wine of its yeast. The process was more than time-consuming and wasteful: it damaged the wine by constantly agitating the bubbles.
Barbe-Nicole knew there had to be a better way. Instead of transferring the wine from bottle to bottle to rid it of its yeast, she devised a method that kept the wine in the same bottle but consolidated the yeast by gently agitating the wine. The bottles were turned upside down and twisted, causing the yeast to gather in the neck of the bottle. This method, known as riddling, is still used by modern champagne makers.
Barbe-Nicole’s innovation was a revolution: not only was her champagne’s quality improved, she was able to produce it much faster. Her new technique was an extreme annoyance to her competitors, especially Jean-Rémy Moët, who could not replicate her method. It wasn’t an easy secret to keep, since Barbe-Nicole employed a large number of workers in her cellars–but no one betrayed her secret, a testament to her workers loyalty, Mazzeo explains. It would be decades before any of them became wise to the method of riddling, giving Barbe-Nicole another advantage over the champagne market.
With the production of champagne increasing, Barbe-Nicole set her sights on building a global empire. By the time she died in 1866, Veuve Clicquot was exporting champagne to the far reaches of the world, from Lapland to the United States. Veuve Clicquot helped turn champagne from a beverage enjoyed solely by the upper-class to a drink available to almost anyone in the middle-upper class–a seemingly small distinction, but one that vastly increased Barbe-Nicole’s market.
“The invention of riddling allows the mass-production of an artisanal and luxury product, just not at the tiny quantities that they were dealing with before,” Mazzeo explains. “Barbe-Nicole begins exporting wine around the world in large quantities and is known as being one of the great businesswomen of her century.”
In spite of the extent of her champagne empire, Barbe-Nicole never left France during her lifetime: it would have been inappropriate for a woman to travel alone during that time. She also never remarried, though there is evidence of mild flirtations with some of her business associates (“She was rumored to have had a penchant for handsome young men working in her company,” Mazzeo explains). Had she remarried, she would almost certainly have had to relinquish control of her business, an unthinkable act for the first modern businesswoman.
From risking her inheritance on a failing business to gambling her champagne against a naval blockade, Barbe-Nicole built her champagne empire on bold decisions, a business model she never regretted. As she wrote in the later years of her life in a letter to a grandchild: “The world is in perpetual motion, and we must invent the things of tomorrow. One must go before others, be determined and exacting, and let your intelligence direct your life. Act with audacity.”
July 31, 2013
A glass of champagne is often synonymous with toasting some of life’s biggest moments—a big promotion at work, weddings, the New Year. So too, is the tickle that revelers feel against their skin when they drink from long-stemmed flutes filled with bubbly.
There’s more to that fizz than just a pleasant sensation, though. Inside a freshly poured glass of champagne, or really any sparking wine, hundreds of bubbles are bursting every second. Tiny drops are ejected up to an inch above the surface with a powerful velocity of nearly 10 feet per second. They carry aromatic molecules up to our noses, foreshadowing the flavor to come.
In Uncorked: The Science of Champagne, recently revised and translated into English, physicist Gerard Liger-Belair explains the history, science and art of the wine. His book also features high-speed photography of champagne bubbles in action and stop-motion photography of the exact moment a cork pops (potentially at a speed of 31 miles per hour (!). Such technology allows Liger-Belair to pair the sommelier with the scientist. “Champagne making is indeed a three-century-old art, but it can obviously benefit from the latest advances in science,” he says.
Liger-Belair became interested in the science of bubbles while sipping a beer after his finals at Paris University about 20 years ago. The bubbles in champagne, he explains, are actually vehicles for the flavor and smell of champagne, elements that contribute to our overall sipping experience. They are also integral to the winemaking process, which produces carbon dioxide not once but twice. Stored away in a cool cellar, the champagne, which could be a blend of up to 40 different varietals, ferments slowly in the bottle. When the cork is popped, the carbon dioxide escapes in the form of Liger’s beloved bubbles. Once poured, bubbles form on several spots on the glass, detach and then rise toward the surface, where they burst, emitting a crackling sound and sending a stream of tiny droplets upward.
These bubble-forming hot spots launch about 30 bubbles per second. In beer, that rate is just 10 bubbles a second. But without this phenomenon, known as effervescence, champagne, beer and soda would all be flat.
Once the bubbles reach the top of the flute, the tension of the liquid below becomes too great as it pulls on them. The bubbles pop in a matter of microseconds. When they burst, they release enough energy to create tiny auditory shock waves; the fizzing sound is a chorus of individual bubbles bursting. By the time champagne goes flat, nearly 2 million bubbles have escaped from the glass.
The collapse of bubbles at the surface is Liger-Belair’s favorite thing about champagne. “Bubbles collapsing close to each other produce unexpected lovely flower-shaped structures unfortunately completely invisible by the naked eye,” he says. “This is a fantastic example of the beauty hidden right under our nose.”
Europeans, though, once considered the bubbling beverage a product of poor winemaking. In the late 1400s, temperatures plunged suddenly on the continent, freezing many of the continent’s lakes and rivers, including the Thames River and the canals of Venice. The monks of the Abbey of Hautvillers in Champagne, where high-altitude made it possible to grow top quality grapes, were already hard at work creating reds and whites. The cold temporarily halted fermentation, the process by which wine is made. When spring arrived with warmer temperatures, the budding spirits began to ferment again. This produced an excess of carbon dioxide inside wine bottles, giving the liquid inside a fizzy quality.
In 1668, the Catholic Church called upon a monk by the name of Dom Pierre Pérignon to finally control the situation. The rebellious wine was so fizzy that bottles kept exploding in the cellar, and Dom Pérignon was tasked with staving off a second round of fermentation.
In time, however, tastes changed, starting with the Royal Court at Versailles. By the end of the 17th century, Dom Pérignon was asked to reverse everything he was doing and focus on making champagne even bubblier. Although historical records show that a British doctor developed a recipe for champagne six years before Pérignon began his work, Pérignon would come to be known as the father of champagne thanks to his blending techniques. The process he developed, known as the French Method, incorporated the weather-induced “oops” moment that first created champagne—and it’s how champagne is made today.
So the next time you raise a glass of bubbly, take a second to appreciate its trademark tickle on another level—a molecular one.
June 20, 2013
Mold in the kitchen has an overwhelmingly negative public image. There’s nothing like opening the fridge and seeing fuzzy welts on your long-forgotten leftovers, and that momentary pang of dread as you feel that you’ve committed some cardinal sin in your housekeeping. (Or maybe I’m just a neurotic.) But fact is that mold spores are everywhere, and given a moist environment, said spores are able to thrive. In many cases, molds are are an easy visual signal that you are in the presence of food that is rotting and is best left un-ingested.
Nevertheless, some molds are perfectly fit for consumption, if not desired to produce fine dining fare. Part of the trick is knowing how to tell the difference between good molds and the molds that will do you some harm. The other part is to overcome some of your reservations try some of the following foods that benefit from a little fungus. (However, it should be noted that if you see mold growing on the following after the point of purchase, you should consider said foodstuff unsafe. The USDA has a handy cheat sheet if you need a refresher course on how to handle fungi in the kitchen [PDF].)
Cheese: Certain cheeses rely on bacteria and mold for their unique flavors and textures. Usually introduced during the finishing phase of the cheese-making process, once applied to the surface, molds penetrate the cheese and breaks down lactic acid, which in turn softens the fats and proteins therein. Strains of penicillium—the same genus of fungi used to create antibiotics—are frequently used. In soft cheeses, Penicillium candidum is what produces the characteristic hard, outer rind as well as the garlicky and earthly flavors those cheeses are known for. Without the mold, brie would be a sour and rubbery cheese, but a little fungus allows the cheese to take on its signature soft, creamy texture. Blue cheeses benefit from Penicillium roqueforti, which provides those cheeses with their hallmark blue veins and bold flavors.
Wine: In the realm of viticulture, rotting is a good thing if induced by the fungus Botrytis cinerea. Under the right climate conditions—dry, sunny days followed humid nights—the fungus’ growth and metabolism induced a “noble rot” in the fruit. Once infected, the grapes dehydrate and shrivel on the vine, increasing the concentration of sugar therein and providing the fruit with honey-like flavors. Vintners have been intentionally infecting—or “botrytizing”—grapes since at least the mid-1500s and these moldy grapes are used to produce some of Germany’s Rieslings, France’s Sauternes and Hungary’s Aszù wines. In incredibly rare cases, however, this mold can also harm people by causing “winemaker’s lung,” a hypersensitive pneumonitis where a person’s lungs become inflamed upon inhalation.
Salami: Health regulations here in the United States have placed some tight restrictions on the manufacture and sale of moldy meats. By and large, this is a good thing. But mold plays a vital role in how European butchers make dry-cured sausage. Here, the desired mold is penicillium, the same genus of fungi used to create antibiotics. When encouraged to grow on the outer casing, the penicillium serves several functions: by occupying all the physical real estate on the sausage, it prevents bad molds from developing; by consuming oxygen it inhibits oxidation of the meat and lastly it protects the fat from going rancid. Although it’s a centuries-old process, finding meats cured in this style are increasingly difficult to find here in this country. (In 2006, health inspectors destroyed the handmade, dry-cured meats at New York’s Il Buco restaurant. The USDA stipulates that meats should be cured in a refrigerator at 40 degrees or colder in order to stave off microbial growth. The “contraband” meat was stored at a little above room temperature.) So if you want to try the real stuff, you can try finding a place that imports dry-cured sausage, or you can make good salami an excuse for a trip overseas.
Corn Smut: Corn is susceptible to the pathogen Ustilago maydis, commonly known as “corn smut,” which infects the kernels and causes bulbous, gray tumors to grow. In this country, corn smut growth is a sign of diseased crops and is something to be eradicated. South America, however, has long regarded the fungus—known there as huitlacoche, Mayan for “excrement of the gods”—as a delicacy. When processed, it’s a slimy, black substance that can be used as an ingredient in Mesoamerican cuisine or as a standalone quesedilla filling. The appearance and colorful nicknames have made it hard for huitlacoche to break its niche market status, although some chefs are trying to do some re-branding by using more plate-positive terms like “corn mushrooms” or “corn truffles.” But there also seem to be some nutritional benefits to eating this fungal slush: a 2010 study showed that huitlacoche is rich in beta-glucens, the same cholesterol-reducing fiber found in oatmeal. And flavor? It’s been described as a cross between corn and mushrooms, earthy and fungal. But there are a few factors that get in the way of widespread huitlacoche production. In addition to being known exclusively in
South American Mexican cuisine, the fungus is highly perishable, making it difficult to get from field to market. And while canned versions are available, the flavor doesn’t compare to the fresh product. Furthermore, if you’re not expressly looking to cultivate this fungus, it can be highly destructive. In addition to decreasing total corn yield, infected ears need to be immediately removed lest mold spores go airborne and effect adjacent plants.
Smith, Tim. Making Artisan Cheese: Fifty Fine Cheeses That You Can Make in Your Own Kitchen. Boston: Quayside Publishing Group, 2005.
Jackson, Ronald S. Wine Science: Principles and Applications. Elsevier, Inc. 2008. Burlington: Elsevier, Inc. 2008.
Ruhlman, Michael and Brian Polcyn. Salumi: The Craft of Italian Dry Curing. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2012.
Deutsch, Jonathan. Ed. They Eat That? A Cultural Encyclopedia of Weird and Exotic Food From Around the World. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2012.
January 29, 2013
In a time of $15, infused vodka cocktails with too many ingredients (add a dash of pretentiousness), a simple drink is hard to come by. “Portlandia,” as always, captured it best: “That is a ginger-based bourbon drink infused with honey lemon and chard ice. Then building off of that base, we’ve got cherry tomato, lime zest. I actually made the bitters myself at home. We’ve got egg whites, eggshell, egg yellows. Rotten banana.”
The fancy mixologist forgot one ingredient, though: falernum.
This rum-based syrup with lime and spices—typically almond or ginger—originated in Barbados and likely isn’t stocked at your neighborhood bar. It can be alcoholic or nonalcoholic when served sans rum. Records pinpoint its popularity in America circa the ’30s, but the history gets fuzzy—even among well-read mixologists.
The word falernum originates from the Roman wine falernian (or falernum in Latin.) But modern falernum, found in classic tiki drinks like the Mai Thai or the Zombie, has little in common with the original use of the word except for it’s coloring. But even that is a little off—Pliny The Elder was once quoted describing it’s color as a rich amber. [Pliny and Cicero’s feelings on the potent wine is also detailed in the Harvard Divinity School's Theological Library's records (reprinted from 1564)]. In Food in the Ancient World: From A-Z, Andrew Dalby writes that the earliest reference to the fine Roman wine produced near Mt. Falernus was by Polybius in about 140 B.C. The word falernum as it is spelled today was most likely not used until 102 B.C.
The wine, which Pliny rated second to Caecuban in his evaluation of Italian wines, was at its best when aged 15-20 years, becoming darker over time from a light amber, to fuscum (brown), to niger (black). He also stated that it was the only wine high enough in alcohol content to catch fire. The Alcohol by Volume (ABV) of Falernum today is roughly 18 percent, comparable to other liqueurs like Kahlúa (20 percent) or Amaretto (24 percent). According to Pliny, Falernian wine (a very different beverage altogether) was close to 30 percent.
But Pliny’s second-favorite wine shares little more than a namesake with the syrup first invented in Barbados. In fact, a New York Times article from 1892 entitled “In the Lore of Barbados: Redistilled Rum,” tells a very different tale of the drink’s etymology. It includes a housewife’s recipe for the mixture and describes a moment of misunderstanding that resulted in the syrup’s namesake:
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.
A Washington Post article from 1937 cites the use of falernum to improve the Cuban drink “El Presidente.” The “reason for this definite cocksureness,” the columnist wrote, was the exotic island quality of classic “tiki” drinks.
But cocktail blogger, Darcy O’Neil, who has written extensively on falernum, dug up this gem of a newspaper article from the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1896 which includes a basic recipe for the Caribbean syrup:
O’Neil also cites the research of Ted Haigh, whose work suggests the origin of the drink to be in question. He was unable to find any references before the ‘30s, when the recipe “one of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of the weak” received popularity in America.
In Explore Barbados (2000) Harry S. Pariser claims Bajan Henry Parkinson first mixed the ingredients (almonds, clove powder, ginger, crushed limes). His great-great-grandson, Arthur Stansfield, registered the combo in 1934 and brought it over to the states. But O’Neil says, a man named John D. Taylor claimed to invent falernum in 1890 and may have been responsible for the drink’s initial commercialization.
Tropical mixers like falernum gained popularity with Donn Beach‘s (Ernest Gantt) invention of the tiki bar in 1931. In ’33, Beach claimed to have invented the infamous Mai Tai which included the Barbadian mixture. By the ’70s, though, the thatched roof aesthetic—along with falernum cocktails—experienced a decline. In And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails, Wayne Curtis details the rise and fall of the “Tiki Era” of cocktails:
“Perhaps the most startling death knell for tiki rang out in 2000, when the glorious Kahiki restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, built in 1961 and featuring a forty-foot high tiki with a fireplace in its mouth was demolished to make way for a Walgreen’s drugstore.”
It’s difficult to track down records of homemade concoctions of the syrup predating these newspaper clippings, leaving plenty of room for variations on the recipe. But one thing most cocktail connoisseurs can agree on: Though falernum’s got a fuzzy past, it’s certainly obscure enough to impress party guests at your next “tiki era revival” hula party.