Your Guide To Drinking This Weekend: Queen’s Park Swizzle

The recipe and history for a cocktail that calls to mind sunnier places during these cold winter months.

Swizzle, Drink, or any brisk or windy liquor. In North America, a mixture of spruce beer, rum, and sugar, was so called. The i7th regiment had a society called the Swizzle Club, at Ticonderoga, A. D. i760.

--A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, Francis Grose, 1786

All of Austin seems to be in the grip of the annual epidemic of Cedar Fever, with heads compacted and sinuses congested, and even though, compared to other climes, the days of wet and cold experienced here are few, it cannot be helped if thoughts are turning now to escaping to someplace warm and sultry with an expanse of sand and turquoise water.

But for working stiffs, with the holiday bills still coming in and the demands of family and career, a Caribbean vacation may not be in the offing.  Fortunately, for those of us who cannot get away, there are cocktails that call to mind sunnier places, and those drinks go beyond the more usual frozen daiquiris and piña coladas and embrace other preparations more in balance and tuned to adult palates.  One such drink is the venerable Queen’s Park Swizzle, a drink that uses a unique style of preparation and pleasantly mingles funky rum, mint, sugar, fresh lime juice and bitters over a lot of crushed ice to call to mind a hammock swaying gently in a trade winds breeze. 

Another Outpost of The Empire, Another Cocktail

Like The Pegu Club, the Queen’s Park Swizzle has its origins in a spot geared towards the administrators of the far flung British Empire, in this case Port Of Spain’s Queen’s Park Hotel.  Built in 1893, the hotel was considered among the finest of its day, offering weary Brits in Trinidad a luxurious place to rest their heads and refresh their spirits.  All inclusive rates in the late 19th century ran from $2-$5 ($54.05 to $135.14 in today’s dollars) per night, and it was noted for its cuisine, airy rooms and amenities, including by 1895, electricity and electric lights.  It was found on the south side of the Queen’s Park Savannah, a broad and lovely green space in the heart of Port of Spain, ringed with colonial mansions festooned with porches cooled by ceiling fans.  Port of Spain is otherwise largely industrial and businesslike, but the Savannah is the place that calls to mind other, more idyllic tropical cities--It is the place for strolling and snacking and people watching.  It is true now, and it was true in 1895: anyone who is anyone in Port of Spain can be found along the Savannah.

Sadly, the Queen’s Park Hotel’s beauty faded over the years and a decade or so back, it was razed to make way for the offices of the BPTT Oil Company.  But the Savannah lives on as a vibrant commercial and tourist area, a mere fifteen minute walk from the beach, filled with hotels and restaurants, and it is still a place that draws locals and tourists together.  As for the Hotel’s house cocktail, history is a shade sketchy on who created it and when.  We know that it was available to tipplers in the Hotel by the 1920s at the latest, and we know that by 1946, its popularity had spread far and wide enough that Trader Vic, in his Trader Vic’s Book of Food and Drink, declared the Queen’s Park Swizzle, "the most delightful form of anesthesia given out today."  Vic was a man who knew a thing or two about rum and rum drinks, and I’m inclined to take his word for it.

What’s in A Name?

There is substantial evidence that the Swizzle was around long before the roaring twenties.  The word swizzle first sees print in the above quoted A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1786 and even then, in reference to a drink from the 1760s that comes from the Northern wilds of North America, the drink contains rum.

More importantly, many Caribbean islands beyond Trinidad claim swizzles of their own and also claim to have first come up with the idea of a swizzle.  Other early reports of swizzles come from St. Kitts (1838), Barbados (1841), Great Britain (1862), and Saint Thomas (1911).  What all of these early recipes have in common is that they were mixtures of rum, something sweet and water, brought together by using a forked root or stick as sort of mixing spoon.  Often, the early record indicates the use of either allspice or sassafras branches as the mixing tool, and it is safe to assume that those branches or roots would have imparted a subtle flavor that came to be enhanced by (or replaced by) bitters as time wore on.

But to truly make a swizzle, you need a goodly quantity of ice crushed down into pebble form, nothing larger than a marble.  The West Indies and other Islands were able to get a reliable supply of ice by the middle of the 19th Century, and one can assume that what we know as a swizzle soon followed.  Citrus soon appears, perhaps first in Bertie Wooster’s beloved “Green Swizzle” originating in Barbados.

Modern swizzles, no matter from where they come, generally use a substantial measure of strong spirit, something sour, something sweet, bitters and, sometimes, herbs, but always heaps of crushed ice to chill and dilute what are usually deceptive, high proof beasts.

A Note on Ingredients: The Rum

There is considerable disagreement on what type of rum should be used in a Queen’s Park Swizzle, with some authorities claiming that it should be the funky, darker style Demerara rum first produced in Guyana, others opting for a lighter rum, and still others calling for a mixture of light and dark.  On this great minds can disagree, but the Demerara Rums are closest to what would have been found in Trinidad when the Queen’s Park Hotel was first swizzling these things and using a lighter, Cuban style rum gets you what is essentially just a strong, bittered Mojito Criollo.

If you want to stay true to tradition use the 80 proof Lemonheart if you can find it or El Dorado (use the 3 year old).  In a pinch, something like Bacardi 8 will do.  But, bear in mind that we’re going to be using a large measure here, so don’t go over 80 proof, no matter which style rum you choose.

Swizzle, The Tool & The Technique

A swizzle stick is not the plastic thing-a-ma-bob plopped into your drink on Southwest Airlines these days, but rather a stick taken from the Swizzlestick Tree (your botanist friends know it as Quararibea Turbinata), a tree native to Martinique that has branches with twigs that radiate out in a 90 degree starburst pattern from the mother branch.  A switch is cut to form a tool with a long handle and five or six shorter tines on the business end of the thing.

In mixing swizzles, the drink is built by adding the herbs (if called for) to a tall glass and lightly muddling them, then pouring in the liquid measure, then adding crushed ice.  The swizzle is pushed through the ice, tines down and the handle is vigorously rotated between the palms of the hands, like a boy scout trying to start a fire with a spindle and a fire board, until the glass is coated with a thick coat of frost.

The result is a drink that is made as kind of a hybrid of a shaken and stirred cocktail, but that is powerfully cold and diluted enough to allow a substantial measure of spirit to be included.

Finding a real swizzle isn’t easy.  You can fly to Martinique and pick a few up there.  You can order one on-line or you can make one at home.  Of course, you could also just plunge a bar spoon into the center of your ice and proceed as above.  It is not a perfect solution—it takes a touch longer to properly mix the cocktail, but it works fine in the end.

A Note on Technique

There are also two schools of thought on how a Queen’s Park Swizzle should be presented.  The first school, and its acolytes are usually the same who call for light rum, say that the swizzle should be put into the drink to a level just above the layer of mint on the bottom of the glass and left there while the swizzling is done.  The resulting drink come out with visually stunning tri-color layers, the green of the mint and lime on the bottom, the clear of the rum in the middle and the reddish brown of the bitters on top.  The second school says that the swizzle should be gently lifted and lowered through the drink as you swizzle, integrating the ingredients into a solid color.  This version is less visually appealing, but arguably better tasting.  Do what you will, but the first version takes a little practice to get just right.

A Recipe

The Queen’s Park Swizzle

8-10 Mint Leaves, plus a full mint sprig for garnish 
3 oz. 80 Proof Demerara Rum
½ oz. Fresh Lime Juice
½ oz. Demerara Sugar Simple Syrup*
½ oz. Fresh Lime Juice
4-6 Dashes Angostura Bitters

Place mint leaves in the bottom of a 10-12 oz. Collins glass.  Lightly bruise the mint with a muddler to release oils, but avoid pulverizing or shredding the leaves.  Add the syrup and gently pull the mint and syrup up to coat the sides of the glass with the mint oil and sugar, before pressing back into the bottom of the glass.

Add lime juice and then add rum.

Add crushed ice until the glass is ¾ full and then add bitters.  Insert your swizzle stick into the glass until the level just above the mint and lime mixture and swizzle vigorously until a thick crust of frost forms on the glass.

Add enough crushed ice to form a small mound over the rim of the glass.

Lightly spank your mint sprig to release its aroma and place the stem in the crushed ice.  Serve with a straw.

*Combine 1 cup Demerara sugar (sugar in the raw) with 1/2 cup water in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir until sugar is completely dissolved and syrup just comes to a boil. Cool and store in refrigerator.