Uncorking History: The Swizzle Stick

A simple invention designed to help martini drinkers ended up creating an advertising revolution while becoming a cocktail's most fashionable accessory.

The swizzle stick’s story is one of humble beginnings. While its glory days were spent as a kitschy ’60s drink accessory, the swizzle stick has been helping man concoct the perfect cocktail since the 1600s. 

The origins of these colourful plastic stirrers can be traced back to the Caribbean, where they had a slightly more rustic appearance. Local islanders would cool down with a ‘rum swizzle’ made from Bermuda rum, water and aromatic flavourings, mixed with a branch from the native quarabribea turbinata, later dubbed the Swizzlestick Tree.

Rapidly spinning a branch of the tree between the palms of the hands would put its tiny bicycle spoke-like twigs to work, resulting in a deliciously frothy and evenly chilled beverage. 

The concept then made its way to America and Europe. There, swizzle sticks took on the noble role of helping women avoid unladylike gassiness. Queen Victoria and the flappers of the Roaring ’20s used plastic and glass sticks to stir the pesky bubbles out of champagne. But the creative and somewhat outlandish designs for which swizzle sticks are renowned were still over a decade away. 

Then, in 1934, inventor Jay Sindler had a martini olive conundrum. Sitting at the bar in Boston’s Ritz Carlton he found himself unable to fish the olive out of his glass without using his fingers. The solution? A miniature spear with a paddle-shaped handle, branded with an establishment or company’s name. 

His patent for the design was granted in February 1935 and his revolutionary idea took flight. Prohibition had ended just over a year earlier; the drinking drought was over and bars were desperate to up their game and get noticed. Luckily for them, Sindler and his new company, Spir-It Inc., were one step ahead and ready to mass-produce swizzle sticks. 

Swizzle sticks worked as affordable mini billboard advertisements. Bars and restaurants could print their information without having to splash out on logo-branded ashtrays or matchbooks.  

Sindler’s invention thrived over the next 20 years, alongside the development of moulding and plastic technologies. By the ‘60s, the swizzle stick had reached its artistic peak: designs ranged from mermaid-shaped pin-up girls to brightly coloured giraffes or hanging mini harmonicas, in case patrons were musically inclined. 

Further down the track, the swizzle stick was confronted by the 1980s fitness craze. As health awareness increased, cocktail drinking at bars was crossed off calendars to make room for fast-paced aerobic classes. 

The whimsical swizzle stick swiftly became an artefact of the past. Wine was embraced as a slightly healthier alternative and establishments cut cocktail accessories from their budgets.  

However, the swizzle stick was pulled out of retirement in the late ‘90s thanks to the Sex and the City girls and their love of Cosmos reigniting an interest in cocktails and returning the swizzle stick to the spotlight, albeit briefly. 

Plastic swizzle sticks are now tucked away in nostalgia boxes, along with paper umbrellas and other forgotten cocktail relics. As for another comeback? It’s unlikely. But it will always be known as the little stick that made a big stir.