The verb “to swizzle” is simply defined as “to stir (a drink) with a swizzle stick.” But what is a swizzle stick, exactly? Some might imagine a plastic cocktail stirrer topped with figures of exotic flora or fauna, while others think of a polished wooden stick encrusted with colored rock sugar.
But those are mere imposters. For something to be a true swizzle stick, it must come from the Caribbean swizzlestick tree, or Quararibea turbinata. These small, perennial plants sprout branches that end in tiny spokes, which spread out like the points of a star. When dunked in an unmixed cocktail and rolled between one’s palms, the sticks work much like simplified immersion blenders.
Because the swizzlestick tree grows almost exclusively in the Caribbean (specifically on the southern islands of Antigua, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Trinidad, and Martinique), the species is relatively unknown elsewhere. But its associated function—swizzling—is recognized around the world, leading to countless adaptations. In California, the plastic flamingo that graces the iconic tiki cocktail known as the Zombie gets called a swizzle stick, even though it bears no resemblance to its natural namesake.
No one knows when West Indians first started using the stick to mix their beverages. A drink named after the tool, however, has been around since the 18th century or earlier. According to a 1908 account of historical beverages in the West Indies, the recipe for a “swizzle” is “six parts of water to one of rum and an aromatic flavouring.” Brought to the Caribbean by British imperialists, the swizzle cocktail is a relative of the colonial American refresher known as switchel. But today, the Oxford Dictionary defines the beverage as “a mixed alcoholic drink, especially a frothy one of rum or gin and bitters.”
By modern definition, the act of “swizzling” (that is, stirring with a fancy tool) makes the drink “a swizzle” and the tool “a swizzle stick.” But this doesn’t give credit to the original, obscure Caribbean tree that inspired so many imitations. Your bartender might swizzle up a tropical storm with a plastic stirrer, but remember: Actual swizzle sticks only come from one place, and that’s the swizzlestick tree.