What Is A Swizzle Stick And Do You Really Need One For Great Cocktails?

The term "swizzle stick" may conjure up images of wild-looking plastic drink stirrers found in "Mad Men"-era cocktails or tiki bar concoctions laden with fruit — but the original swizzle stick is something quite different. It's a wooden Caribbean bar implement with a long history. The traditional swizzle stick, also called the bois lélé, comes from a tree called the Quararibea turbinata. (It's commonly called the swizzlestick tre.) After stripping the tree's bark from its thin straight branches that end in small spokes, the branches perfect for stirring drinks. When whirled between your palms, the branch's ends act a bit like immersion blenders, aerating and mixing a cocktail's ingredients and creating a frothy head.  


This original swizzle stick has a history going back more than 400 years, starting with anon-alcoholic drink called the switchel, which is making a comeback. The drink — made from water, vinegar, ginger, and molasses — originated in the Caribbean in the 17th century, and the Quararibea turbinata swizzle stick was used to stir it up. At some point, rum entered the picture and the resulting drink eventually became known as a swizzle — and the stick used to stir it became known as a swizzle stick. 

The cocktail stirrer isn't a true swizzle stick

The traditional swizzle stick is very different from what most people would think of when they hear the term, and the reason for that mix-up is an inventor named Jay Sindler. Sindler designed the modern swizzle stick in 1934 after having a hard time trying to pull an olive out of his martini.


In Sindler's patent, he promised his invention — a little wooden spear with a space to advertise the name of the bar or restaurant — would forever end the "boorish antics obnoxious to people accustomed to polite social usages" of trying to retrieve an olive from the glass (via Punch). By the 1950s, which was pretty much the heyday of the plastic swizzle stick (aka drink stirrer), the newfangled version with its wild colors and designs had subsumed the original Caribbean swizzle stick.

The swizzle stick versus the cocktail shaker

Bartenders in the Caribbean have continued the tradition of swizzling drinks using the traditional wooden stick. Today, the technique — and the resulting drinks — are continuing to make inroads into cocktail culture. So when should you use a traditional swizzle stick rather than a cocktail shaker? For the hardcore aficionados of swizzling, only sour style drinks typically made with rum and crushed ice are considered a true swizzle. And as such, they are the only cocktails that require this mixing technique. The rum swizzle, Bermuda's national drink, is a good example of a typical swizzle. It combines orange, lemon, and pineapple juice, rum, grenadine, and bitters that's whirled to frothy perfection with a wooden swizzle stick.  


Some bartenders believe any cocktail that's usually shaken can actually be swizzled instead, since they basically accomplish the same goal. Both shaking and swizzling a cocktail combine the ingredients, dilute the alcohol, quickly chill the drink, and add froth. Plus, swizzling saves a step since it's done in the cocktail's serving glass. But let's not forget the more modern plastic swizzle stick, either. By all means, feel free to add one to your throwback beverages for a cool look, like a retro 7 and 7 instead of a Jack and Coke. The Seagram's 7 Crown Whiskey and 7 Up soda could use a good stir.