It’s a long stick with an irregular claw at the end, something a little macabre, like a skeletal monkey arm or a ritual tool made out of a chicken foot. It is crafted from the wood of the Quararibea turbinata tree, an aromatic and perennial shrub native to Antigua, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada and other parts of the Caribbean. It dates to the 1600s, when in the West Indies a small branch was used to stir a rum drink called a "switchel."
Sometimes it’s called Le Bois Lélé, the lele twig. The rest of the time, it is the swizzle.
And it’s back. Or maybe it never left, but bartenders in major cities around the country are employing them for showstopper drinks, often of the tiki variety.
A drink can be shaken or it can be stirred. The former aerates the drink, changing its texture, making it much colder and incorporating a little more water from the melting ice. Stirring, on the other hand, is for when you don’t want to dilute the drink too much or change its texture, usually for more spirit-forward cocktails. (As an aside, doesn’t it seem like James Bond would be a stirred guy, not shaken? Although in Casino Royale, when asked which he preferred, he said, "Do I look like I give a damn?" That’s so Daniel Craig.)
But what if you want something in between? Some aeration and cooling, but not too melty and diluted. That’s when you swizzle. It’s a noun and a verb, after all.
Queen Victoria was known to use a swizzle of sorts to remove bubbles from her bubbly — royal belching simply wouldn’t do. This is how bartenders use them: Put crushed ice in a tall glass, add your liquors, ram the swizzle down to the bottom, then twirl the handle of the stick between your palms like you’re a Boy Scout frenziedly pursuing a fire-starting badge, working the claw of the swizzle up and down the glass to whip that ice around.
I was recently a judge for a House of Angostura Swizzle Royale contest at Hotel Bar in Tampa. Tampa was among a number of cities Angostura was visiting in search of a champion bartender. A swizzle champ, to be exact.
Why Angostura? They make Angostura Aromatic Bitters and Angostura Orange Bitters, used in many swizzled drinks. The brand is based in Trinidad and Tobago and has always been intertwined with the Queen’s Park Swizzle, a cocktail (Demerara rum, simple syrup, fresh mint, a squeeze of lime and several dashes of Angostura bitters) named for the Trinidadian hotel where it was invented in the 1920s.
Competitors — which included Charles Britch of Fly Bar in Tampa; Ryan Brown of Fine & Dandy at Armature Works in Tampa; Chuck Cooper of Haven in Tampa; Erin Davey of the Mandarin Hide in St. Petersburg; Matt Pingol of Rooster & the Till in Tampa; Jesus Santiago of Hotel Bar; runnerup Lexy Biller of Dragonfly Sushi Bartenders & Sake Restaurant and Dime Bar in Gainesville; and winner Daniel Messina of the Nest Bar in Orlando — made Queen’s Park Swizzles for the competition. But they did a whole bunch of other exotic swizzle cocktails that managed to be tiki-retro and super contemporary at the same time.
Some of these drinks were whackadoodle. Biller’s original concoction, called Kaguya’s Fire, contained sesame-washed Suntory Toki Japanese Whiskey, red curry-infused sake, ginger-lime cordial, an onion-flavored tincture, Campari, Angostura aromatic bitters and a topper of activated charcoal and white sesame seeds. Whoa, nelly. But it was delicious.
If you’re going to get swizzling, start small. First, you need a swizzle (type "Le Bois Lélé" into Amazon and you’re dialed). You’ll need crushed ice (big cubes won’t do), tall glasses and just a handful of ingredients. Start with a Bermuda Swizzle, still wildly popular on that island: light and dark Gosling’s rum, pineapple juice, orange juice, grenadine for color and sweetness, Angostura bitters to cut the sweetness. Or maybe a Barbados Red Rum Swizzle, a drink made wildly popular at legendary tiki bar Trader Vic’s: half a lime, 2 ounces Barbados rum, 1 dash Angostura bitters, ½ teaspoon sugar, swizzled with crushed ice.
Pingol of Rooster & the Till started swizzling while bartending at Ciro’s in Tampa for five years. He says rookie swizzlers may blunder: If you’re within 2 feet of the drink’s assembly, you’re in the splash zone where ice may go flying.
"When we were training, they had us stand straight and put your palms together and spin like you were trying to start a fire," he said. "You know it’s done when the outside of the glass starts frosting up. You know then that you’re getting the drink to the right temperature."
But what kind of drinks should be swizzled, and what would be a swizzle fizzle? Pingol said lean toward tiki-style drinks, poolside drinks, drinks you might imbibe on a cruise with rum and bright fruity notes and citrus. He says to steer away from creamy or viscous drinks.
Erin Davey is about to leave the Tampa Bay area to work in Miami but has spent the past 5?½ years bartending at Mandarin Hide in St. Petersburg. Like Pingol, she learned to swizzle in Tampa at Ciro’s. She says it’s a beloved bartender technique because it’s fun to spin the stick, but also because it’s a bit of a showstopper and invariably folks down the bar are craning their necks and saying, "I want to order one of those."
She cautioned that if you use the classic wooden swizzle, the five little prongs are often uneven lengths and can cause a drink to topple: Spin slowly until you’re in the groove. And she suggested drinks that have a decent amount of liquor in them, or you’re likely to get a watered-down drink with all that crushed ice.
She says the Queen’s Park is a go-to option for her because it’s similar to a mojito, only better. What doesn’t lend itself to a swizzle? She can’t quite imagine a vodka drink, but doesn’t rule out bourbon (hey, try swizzling a julep) or other liquors.
"Drinking is so subjective. If you like certain ingredients, and you like the way they taste, then it’s a fantastic drink for you."
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.