First published in Apsara Magazine, Issue 2, 2008
The swizzle is Guyana’s long lost, but once favourite, alcoholic drink. It seems that it got its name from a combination of two 1800s words: ‘switchel’ meaning ‘a mixed rum drink’ and ‘fizz’, an effervescing drink, and it once enjoyed fame the world over as being part of Demerara life. But now the swizzle is almost unknown in the country which gave it birth. In the 1800s and up to the mid 1900s, the drinking of swizzles was a custom in Demerara which grew to cult status, with it becoming the drink of the day in British Guiana, long before the combination of rum and coke was ever tasted.
The swizzle was noted by everyone who visited and lived here, and between 1871 and 1957 at least eight authors wrote about it, complete with lengthy descriptions, recipes and poems (one written about the swizzle as a goddess). In fact, so many people have written about swizzles and Demerara that it seems quite a mystery that the drink disappeared with almost no trace.
One of the most entertaining accounts of the swizzle appeared in The Gentleman’s Magazine of the New York Times on 8 October 1893. After describing a journey to the interior to obtain a swizzle stick, and then describing the stick in detail, the author then set out the elaborate ceremony of bringing the swizzle into being by the ‘Demerarian’ butler. He said:
But, what has the butler been doing? … He has uncovered the blanket-swathed ice in the refrigerator where it was placed by the cook this morning, on her return from the icehouse and the market, breaks off a piece about the size of a mango, and then puts the larger block to bed again. He wraps the fragment with a cloth and then proceeds to hammer it with a wooden mallet.
When it is no more than frozen water dust, he empties it into the glass jug. Swiftly he adds three teaspoonfuls of white sugar… he uncorks a black bottle, labelled ‘Schiedam’ and judiciously measures out three wineglasses of a white, transparent liquid. These, with the same quantity of water, go to join the ice and sugar. Last of all, he opens a flask… containing world-famed Angostura [of which] …he pours into the jug just three teaspoonfuls.
Everything is now ready, and James gravely takes the swizzle stick from its place. The end, with the amputated twigs attached, he buries in the mixture he has just compounded. The smooth stem he presses gently, but firmly, between the palms of both hands, his fingers outstretched, and imparts to it a rotary motion, constantly increasing, till the foam produced by the whirling twigs almost reaches the top of the tall glass. This task accomplished, he goes off with his burden to the waiting ‘buccras’ in the verandah.
In the 1800s the swizzle was made with gin, brandy or whiskey, but by the mid-1950s, rum was generally used to make it, though you can still use gin as you’ll see later on. Even though swizzles were the craze in British Guiana for almost a hundred years before the 1950s, I only found two people who had heard about Mr Joseph King, the first person I spoke to, remembers that in the mid-1950s when he was a young lawyer, swizzles were drunk often by everyone he knew. He vividly recalled one notable gentleman ordering his swizzles in extra large glasses and then gulping them down, or throwing them to head, as was the style of drinking swizzles. Now just over fifty years later, no-one has heard of swizzles.
Mr King gave me his aunt’s recipe to show how her swizzle was made. She wasn’t much of a drinker, and it may be a little light on the alcohol, but it contained: ½ measure rum each; a shot of Angostura bitters; ½ teaspoon falernum; ¼ measure milk; and, crushed ice. This isn’t as descriptive as the account already set out, and neither milk nor falernum (which is a hard-to-find liqueur from Barbados) is mentioned by the first writer, but a skilful combination by an enterprising reader of the recipes you find here will certainly go towards bringing the swizzle back.
But Mr King only remembered the swizzle being made and had never made one himself. The second person I found who knew what a swizzle was actually makes them every Christmas at lunch, when her family gets together. Mrs Kathlyn Burch-Smith, my friend Ronald’s mother, told me that the swizzle was a very popular family drink (for the adults, of course) when she was growing up, and she continued in the tradition without knowing that it had died out everywhere else.
Since Mrs Burch-Smith saw the swizzle being made over many years, before she started making them, she was surprised to hear that she was only the second person I found who knew about it. Mrs Burch-Smith didn’t have a written recipe like Mr King’s aunt because she learnt to make the swizzle from seeing it being made at home, but I was still easily let in on the family tradition.
This version of the swizzle contains about 6 ounces each of rum, gin, falernum and grenadine syrup (also found in Barbados). You can also use evaporated milk instead of falernum and grenadine syrup. Since the swizzle-stick is only for those with energetic arms, Mrs Burch-Smith told me that she puts all the ingredients together in her blender with ice and blends them up until the swizzle is pink and foamy with a creamy constitution. Before blenders came around, one uncle of hers used to use a cocktail shaker with crushed ice.
When the swizzle is ready, whether you use a swizzle-stick, a cocktail shaker or a blender to make it, you can then pour it out into glasses slightly larger than a snap glass, like Mrs Burch-Smith does, and serve it to your guests at Christmas (or any other time) as the long lost swizzle of Demerara fame. Give the guests a warning though: Mrs Burch-Smith said that the swizzle is sweet and goes down smoothly, but if you’re not careful it’ll lay you out flat on the ground after a few. Swizzle parties that start at six and go on till midnight, as one famous author from the 1930s noticed in British Guiana, are only for the brave, it seems.
Now the only thing left to say is where the swizzle-stick comes from. The scientific name of the Guyanese tree seems to be Mabea piriri from the family Euphorbiaceae. Apparently, swizzle-sticks are still being used by Amerindians in the North-West district of Guyana to swizzle porridge and chocolate milk but not the drink. Maybe readers’ relatives or friends in the North-West can send some swizzle-sticks from that tree, known locally as the swizzle-stick tree, and we can share them around to make the authentic historical swizzle. We’ll then be well on our way to bringing the true swizzle back as Guyana’s favourite drink. Or at least we’ll see what the fuss was all about.