(Kamal Ramkarran is the author of the original and longer version of this 2009 article, which has been abridged and amended by me with his permission).
The swizzle is Guyana’s long lost, but once favourite, alcoholic beverage. Even though it was synonymous with Demerara and had enjoyed worldwide fame, it is now almost unknown in the country which gave it birth. In the 1800s and up to the mid 1900s, the drinking of swizzles was an established custom, even passion, among Demerara’s upper strata. It became the preferred cocktail of the day, long before the combination of rum and coke was ever discovered.
Between 1871 and 1957 at least eight authors wrote about it, complete with lengthy descriptions, recipes and poems (one was written about the swizzle as a goddess). In fact, so many people have written about swizzles and Demerara that it is 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 in this quaint 19th century excerpt:
“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.”
The swizzle was originally made with gin, brandy or whisky, which were later replaced by rum. Even though swizzles were the craze in British Guiana for a hundred plus years before the 1950s, I found only two people who had heard about it even though there are probably many more.
Mr. Joseph King, retired Senior Partner of Cameron & Shepherd, remembers that in the mid-1950s when he was a young lawyer, swizzles were drunk often and by everyone he knew. He vividly recalled one notable gentleman ordering his swizzles in extra large glasses and then gulping them down or, as Mr. King described in the language used at the time, ‘throwing them to head.’
Mr. King gave me his aunt’s recipe of the swizzle which he has saved all these years. It contained: ½ measure rum each; a shot of Angostura bitters; ½ teaspoon falernum; ¼ measure milk; and, crushed ice. Neither milk nor falernum (which is a hard-to-find liqueur from Barbados) was mentioned in ‘The Gentleman’s Magazine,’ but a skillful and enterprising combination of the recipes found here will certainly go towards bringing the swizzle back at this Christmas season.
The second person I found who knew about the swizzle and actually makes them at family get togethers at Christmas is Mrs. Kathlyn Burch-Smith, the mother of my colleague at the Bar, Ronald Burch-Smith. Mrs. Burch-Smith 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. Mrs. Burch-Smith was surprised to hear that she was only the second person I found who knew about it. Mrs. Burch-Smith did not have a written recipe but she learnt to make the swizzle from observing it being made at home. I was generously let in on the family tradition.
Her 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 the time of blenders, one uncle of hers used 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 and if you’re not careful it will lay you out flat after a few. Swizzle parties that started at six and went on until midnight, as one famous author from the 1930s noticed in British Guiana, were only for the robust and adventurous.
Now where does the swizzle stick come from? The scientific name of the Guyanese tree seems to be Mabea piriri from the family Euphorbiaceae. The tree can be found in the North-West where swizzle sticks are still being used by Amerindians to swizzle porridge and other non-alcoholic drinks. Readers with relatives or friends in the North-West can access swizzle sticks from the tree, known as the ‘swizzle stick tree,’ 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 in British Guiana’s colonial heyday.