Your Guide to Drinking This Weekend: The Corn ‘N Oil

A Bajan cocktail of mysterious origin.

He also made...a Bajan drink called Falernum, a sweet liquor believed to be invented in Barbados that is used in Caribbean and tropical drinks. It has the flavors of almond, ginger and/or cloves, and lime, and sometimes vanilla or allspice…Other traditional Bajan drinks he made were a “Corn and Oil” (made of rum, Falernum and fresh lime juice,) and a “Punch-Of-Cream,” which uses condensed and evaporated milk, Ponche Kuba (a Caribbean rum cream similar to Irish creams) and, of course, rum.

--Anthony DeMarco, "Barbados, The Rum Island"

Normally, in the course of tracing the origin of a cocktail, it is a relatively simple matter of going to the historical record—consulting the myriad historical volumes and reference books on the shelf, and if those fail or need enhancing, enlisting the aid of the powerful algorithms that power the Google. When the material is gathered, sources compared and verifiable facts traced and held up to the light against legend and half truth, conclusions can be drawn and we can be fairly certain that we are correct or admit when we are not.

But, sometimes, the books fail. The algorithms have us chasing our tails, with sources linking back to other sources in a circular firing squad that keeps dumping you into the sort of message boards that are populated by hordes full of surety not always based on fact. And it is then that you recall that people who are drinking heavily tend to forget some things, and if we cannot ultimately decide where a cocktail got its start, or who came up with the thing, we can still agree (even if we can’t agree exactly on the recipe and what specifically should be used to make it) that the result is delicious, and it is time to just get to making one or several of the things, because you need a damn drink.

Such is the case with the deceptively simple Bajan sipper, The Corn ‘N Oil, a delicious cocktail with almost no concrete information behind it, no readily accepted agreement on the proportions with which to make it or the exact ingredients in it. It could be annoying, but the various permutations all taste good to one degree or another, so perhaps we should just get on with mixing some up and be done with it.

One Thing We Know for Certain, One We Can Be Fairly Certain About, And a Brief Digression on Rum

The Corn ‘N Oil comes from Barbados. That is verifiable anecdotally, as the Corn ‘N Oil is widely known as a part of Bajan culture, as much a part of island life there as ‘Ti Punch is elsewhere in the Caribbean. It also uses a uniquely Bajan ingredient in Falernum, a clove and lime scented liqueur first developed in Barbados.

We can also be fairly certain that famed Seattle bartender Murray Stenson is responsible for raising the drink’s profile in the States. Like The Last Word, it is generally accepted that Murray started pouring Corn ‘N Oils, or his variation thereof, at Seattle’s Zig Zig Café from whence it gradually spread to other cocktail bars and beyond as bartenders came to sit and drink and learn from Murray.

But the unanswered question is how Murray came to the Corn ‘N Oil and how a crucial ingredient change from the Bajan original—a change that fits the cocktail’s moniker—came about.

Rum has been produced commercially in Barbados since the Mt. Gay distillery opened in the 1630s, and Bajan Rum is as ingrained in daily life there as on any other island. Rum, due to different production methods and raw materials, is the most varied of all the spirit categories, and Bajan Rums, historically, were known for a subtle sweetness and depth of flavor as well as a nice bit of rum funk alongside some tropical fruit and vanilla notes. Plantation 5 Year Old Barbados Rum is an excellent example of the genre and quite affordable.

In Barbados, a Corn ‘N Oil is typically made with an aged example of the local rum mixed with the local falernum and finished off with some bitters and some lime. The resulting drink is sort of light brown in color, easy going and mellow.

But Murray went a different direction with his rum choice, opting instead for a Blackstrap Rum from the Virgin Islands.

Rum is made in one of two ways—it is either distilled from fermented molasses produced as a byproduct of sugar refining or simply distilled from fermented cane juice. With rums made from molasses, most are distilled from higher grade molasses, which has more fermentable sugars left behind. Blackstrap molasses is the darkest, funkiest, thickest kind of molasses there is, as it represents the maximum extraction of sugar from raw cane.

When made from Blackstrap, the final rum retains a huge molasses impression on the finished product, and the distillate is usually aged and then colored to pour black as, well, oil. It is different than other dark rums, say Meyer’s or Gosling’s or Coruba, that are colored in the same way but distilled from higher grade molasses and lack the deep, rich molasses character of Blackstrap Rum.

In a Corn ‘N Oil, the use of Blackstrap changes the final drink drastically when compared to a more traditionally aged rum, and Murray’s revision to the Bajan recipe has widely been accepted as the modern standard for the drink, despite there not being a tradition of blackstrap rum in Barbados. Why? Because the rich, deep flavor of the rum, with swirling molasses and coffee notes, links up with the spicy and sweet falernum to make cocktail magic. Perhaps it is not authentic magic, but it is magic nonetheless.

A Note on Execution

To make yourself a nice Corn ‘N Oil, you’re going to need exactly six things: A bottle of rum, a bottle of falernum, a bottle of angostura bitters, a lime, ice and an old fashioned glass. A knife to cut the lime would be helpful, and a spoon to mix the whole thing up would be ideal, but for this final purpose a clean finger will do just fine.

As befits a cocktail attuned to island life, there is no messing around with shakers or strainers in a Corn ‘N Oil. This drink is built in the glass it is consumed in with a minimum amount of fuss, but there can be a bit of ceremony. If you are using the blackstrap rum, it will layer or float prettily atop your falernum, almost as oil sits atop water. Feel free to admire this for a moment, then stir the whole thing together and get to drinking.

What’s in a Name?

As with the origin of the drink, no one really knows. Yes, in the modern American Corn ‘N Oil, the blackstrap rum pours out looking like Texas Crude, but the drink existed in Barbados for decades at least without the use of blackstrap and the aged Bajan Rum looks exactly nothing like oil.

There is speculation that the drink took its name from an Anglo mishearing something in the local Patois, but no one can really identify what that might be. After worrying over this for a long while and trying ever more inventive search words, I’m going to go with Iris Dement’s advice and “let the mystery be.”

A Note on Ingredients: Falernum

Trying to unlock the mystery of falernum can lead to a rabbit hole of tiki forum hell. Here is what is generally agreed upon: Falernum is from Barbados. It is flavored with almond, clove and lime. After that it all goes to bits.

There are those that argue that Falernum is a liqueur, there are those that argue that it is a non-alcoholic syrup. There are those that argue that it dates from a certain recipe concocted by John D. Taylor in Barbados in 1890, there are those that argue that it dates from a recipe made by Arthur Stansfeld in the 1930s and sold in the U.S. at that time by the Sazerac Corporation as “Genuine Falernum.” There are those that scream for the inclusion of ginger, there are those that call ginger an abomination.

In practice, it boils down to three commercial choices available in the United States. A non-alcoholic version made by Fee Brothers that is sweetened with HFCS, an infrequently available non-alcoholic version made by the DaVinci Coffee Syrups people or the 22 proof John D. Taylor ‘s Velvet Falernum imported from Barbados.

For Corn ‘N Oil use (and for most others, despite what some of the Tiki Experts linked above have to say), the Taylor version is the only way to go, unless you choose to make your own, which is not a bad idea at all if you can’t track down the Taylor.

A Note on Proportions

There is a recipe on the back of the John D. Taylor Falernum for the Corn ‘N Oil that calls for three parts falernum to one part blackstrap rum. Most other recipes invert this so that the rum is the dominant element. Jason Wilson argues for the back of the bottle recipe, but for most tastes this will skew overly sweet.

That said, when the drink is made with the dryer, aged Bajan rum instead of the sweeter Blackstrap, the three parts falernum to one part rum is decidedly more balanced than it would otherwise be and careful observers of the cocktail as made in Barbados confirm these proportions.

The moral of the story?  Make this one the way you like it and don’t worry too much about it.

Some Recipes

Corn ‘N Oil (Modern American Version)

2 oz. Cruzan Blackstrap Rum
½ oz. John D. Taylor Velvet Falernum
2-3 Dashes Anogstura Bitters
¼ lime, cut into two wedges.

Fill a double old fashioned glass with ice. Add the Falernum and top with the rum. Dash in the bitters, and squeeze both lime wedges atop the glass. Stir to combine and chill well.

Corn ‘N Oil (Bajan Version)

1 ½ oz. John D. Taylor Velvet Falernum
½ oz. Plantation Five Year Old Barbados Rum
2 Dashes Angostura Bitters
¼ lime, cut into two wedges.

Fill a double old fashioned glass with ice. Add the Falernum and top with the rum. Dash in the bitters, and squeeze both lime wedges atop the glass.  Stir to combine and chill well.

And a variation, offered by the general manager of Midnight Cowboy, Brian Dressel:

The Bajan Flip

1 oz. Cruzan Blackstrap Rum
1 oz. Domain de Canton Ginger Liqueur
3/4 oz. fresh lime lime juice
1/2 oz. Angostura Bitters
1/2 oz. Orgeat
2 dashes Jerry Thomas Decanter Bitters
1 whole egg

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker and dry shake (shake without ice) to begin the emulsification of the egg. Add ice to the shaker and shake for 30 seconds until the cocktail is well combined. Double strain into a chilled coupe glass and garnish with fresh grated cinnamon.

The cocktail plays with all the flavors of the falernum--clove, ginger, almond, spice and sugar without actually using falernum and the egg brings the drink into balance while giving it a nice richness.