Falernum, the Poaceae & the Importance of Using the Whole Plant

Jan 26 / Alberto Carbo
As the holiday season fades into the rearview, and the new year is starting to unfold before us, many of us strive to regain the balance we may have put aside during the holiday celebrations in favor of indulgence (just me?!). But what if we could have both?

Falernum may just fit that category, as it is delicious, but also made with several carminative spices, which not only support our digestive process but also give us the ability to reminisce on the delicacies of the holiday period.

Upon hearing the word falernum, intrigue and curiosity are sparked. It is a word that sounds like it is from a far-away place, or perhaps a far-away time, and indeed it is. Monte or Mount Massico in Italy was known as Monte Falernum during the Roman empire. The Romans cultivated Aglianico grapes on its slopes, from which they produced falernum wine, at the time, known to be one of the best wines available, enjoyed on a daily basis, and talked about even by Pliny the Elder. Chances are, you have not heard this word, for in modern times, it is only talked about by bartenders and cocktail aficionados.

It is understood that falernum was created in Barbados, at least as early as the 19th century but likely before that. Every estate made its own rum, and it is said that every estate also made its own falernum.

Falernum was originally a low-proof, cane sugar, lime juice, rum, and bitter almond concoction, created with the left-over molasses from sugar production. This resulted in an 8 – 11% ABV. throughout Barbados, this was imbibed colloquially as a sort of cordial on a day-to-day basis. Could its frequent and daily consumption be the reason for its being named falernum?

We could stop there and be content with knowing the ingredients with which Falernum was originally made, however, for the insatiably curious, the question that now comes to mind is: how did these four ingredients come to be in the same place, at the same time – allowing for the possibility of their combination, and the creation of a delicious beverage that would become a legacy on the Caribbean Island, and eventually a popular cocktail revival ingredient.

Ironically, rum and sugar are two different products made from the processing of a common raw resource, the sugar cane plant, or Saccharum officinarum. Humanities history with Saccharum is dark and full of pitfalls, and it has undoubtedly played an influential role in the socioeconomic development and shaping of our modern world. But let’s focus on the plant!
Sugar cane originated in Southeast Asia, likely in the Polynesian island of Papua New Guinea. Original peoples of the area likely chewed on the stems to get the sweet sap to leech from the fibrous stalks, but it is also where the first suspected domestication of sugar cane began over 10, 000 years ago, in 8, 000 BCE.

Sugar cane is a perennial grass, and belongs to the Poaceae, the fifth largest plant family, which happens to be humanity's single most important source of food. Several genus belonging to the Poaceae family are staple foods across the world, such as Oats, Avena spp.; Sorghum spp.; Corn, Zea mays; Barley, hordeum vulgare;Wheat, Triticum spp.; Rice, Oryza sativa. This botanical family also includes members which are of industrial importance to human beings, such as Bamboo, Bambusoideae arundinaria.

Throughout the ages, the cultivation of sugar cane spread across human migration routes, first into India, followed by the Asian territory around 1, 000 BCE. Sugar largely remained unrefined, and was consumed by removing the rind of the stalk and chewing/sucking on the inner flesh.

By crushing sugar cane, people discovered they could extract the fresh, sweet, dark green juice and obtain the treasure of the plants offering without the work (chewing). I would hypothesize that this remained a popular way of consuming sugar for a long time because it is thirst-quenching, refreshing, and uncomplicated requiring simple technology. To this day in areas where sugar cane grows, you will likely find someone with a press, offering fresh-pressed goodness.

Someone in India figured out a method of refinement in the ancient world: by boiling the sweet, fresh-pressed juice, the water evaporated, resulting in crystalized sugar.

Now don’t be fooled, this simple, and easy method does not create the white crystals that most people know today as sugar. As water evaporates, the dark green hue turns a deep ochre color and begins to thicken. While still hot, it was poured into molds, and as the molten liquid-cooled, it hardened into a dense mass. In this format, it could be preserved and transported anywhere in the world. To use it, you would simply shave off what you needed.

You will find articles and chronicles, stating that the crystallization of sugar that was invented in India around 500 BCE was in fact a chemical crystallization, as is modernly employed. But none of those articles say which chemicals they were using or explain the method of crystallization. It seems a little far-fetched… Unless of course, it was perhaps an ancient alchemical method, which is now lost to us. I will continue to search for details!

It is important to know that the simple method of sugar refinement described above is still alive, well, and popular. Although I cannot speak to other areas of the world, in South America, you can still easily find this unrefined sugar, many times wrapped in plantain/banana leaves. It goes by different names depending on the region you are in. Two of the ones I know are Panela (Colombia) and Chancaca (Peru).

The cultivation of sugar cane was firmly established in the East for several centuries, when the Arab peoples, who had conquered and ruled the Iberian Peninsula between 711-1492 AD, established crops in Spain around 700-800 AD, as well as many sugar refinement facilities. Crops of sugar cane started popping up in different European locations including Malta, Crete, and Sicily. It is from the Arabic word “sukkar” that we derived the word sugar from.

Having learned the refinement from Arab people, Europeans continued the production of sugar after the re-conquering of the Iberian Peninsula. After conquering and establishing slave-driven sugar plantations on the islands that are part of the African continent, such as Madeira, Açores, Cabo Verde, and São Toméans, the Portuguese became the leading producers and distributors of sugar worldwide. Madeira alone had over 80 different plantations.

From here, at the end of the 15th century, the Portuguese brought sugar cane to Brazil, and in 1493, Christopher Columbus is said to have brought the first sugar cane plants to the Caribbean, and they were successfully planted on the island of Española, now known as Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Being health conscious, I understand that many of us have fallen out of love with refined (white) sugar, whether it is because of the industrialized practices which continue to be shrouded in darkness and greed, or because of the addictive, and noxious health effects which seem to result from consuming it, especially in large quantities. But it is important to know that in the ancient method described above and still available today (panela), Saccharum officinarum maintains many of its healthful and nutritive qualities that nature imbued it with, such as vitamin A, B, C, D, and E, as well as minerals such as magnesium, calcium, phosphorous and iron. It is also sweeter than white sugar, meaning that you need less to reach the desired level of sweetness, and perhaps most importantly because it is not processed further, it is easier for your body to digest and assimilate.

Although I will not go into details, I encourage you to learn about the process of modern-day white sugar, as it is a great example of something we herbalists are so familiar with, and weary of – our modern-day obsession with the isolation/concentration of a specific compound. White sugar is pure sucrose, extracted from Sugar Cane, having had all ‘impurities’ removed. To make it white, a variety of methods are employed, including filtering with bone char or granular carbon, and whitening with sulfur dioxide, calcium carbonate, phosphoric acid, calcium hydroxide, and polyacrylamides.

Lastly, despite slavery having been abolished, the practices of giant sugar-producing conglomerates and their many times, inhumane treatment of the workforce are deplorable. From an energetic/esoteric perspective, I suspect this is also a contributing factor to the detrimental health effects of sugar in our daily diets.

The Caribbean became a world-class hub for sugar production in the last two centuries. Sugar refinement resulted in the production of rum, and both were, and still are, produced in the Caribbean.

Much like the global journey, that Saccharum officinarum underwent to reach the ‘new world’ lemons and limes, which likely originated in South Asia, were also brought and planted by colonizers.

The third ingredient of classic falernum, bitter almond, is quite intriguing. The almonds that we eat today, Prunus amygdalus or Prunus dulcis, are said to have been domesticated 12, 000 years ago. Before domestication, Prunus amygdalus grew in the wild and accumulated the bitter and toxic cyanogenic glycoside, amygdalin. Over many years, the domestication of wild almonds was made possible by the selection of sweet and edible genotypes that grew within the inedible wild ones.

And thus, we have a simple beverage, with an intriguing history, made with ingredients that originally came from faraway lands. Although my curiosity is definitely satiated, one question remains – why the bitter almond? Undoubtedly the sugar would have masked the bitter taste but considering that bitter almonds are poisonous, who would risk adding them to falernum? Unless of course, it was originally a medicinal concoction?

If this sounds like fun to you, you may also like Herbal Medicine Making to learn how to make herbal medicines and more.


Out of convenience, the Falernum I make is not akin to the original day-to-day drink of Barbados. For one, there is no bitter almond in it, and secondly, my recipe is more of a ‘base’, which you can add to depending on what you are using it for. When you are zesting the limes, however, you will likely grate some of the pith (the white part) accidentally, but that’s ok. Its bitter taste imparts a balanced and subtle bitterness to the final product, perhaps reminiscent to the bitter almond of yore.

  • 6 Limes
  • 2/3 cup grated ginger
  • 6 cinnamon quills
  • 1/2 cup whole allspice
  • 1/2 cup whole nutmeg (cut in quarters)
  • 1/4 cup whole cloves
  • 25 oz (750 ml approx.) alcohol of your choice 40% ABV – I like to use a neutral grain spirit these days, as it allows for more versatility of use, but I have used vodka, rum, cachaça, bourbon or rye – really the possibilities are endless.
  • 1 quart (1 L) jar

  1. Toast the spices - place all of the spices on a skillet on medium-low heat (depending on your stove this may be low heat). You want the heat to be low, otherwise, you will burn the spices.
  2. Measure out your alcohol and pour it into your jar.
  3. Once the pan heats up, make sure to gently stir the spices every 20-30 seconds to ensure they do not burn.
  4. Their smell will start to fill your home. Continue to toast them for 3-4 minutes.
  5. Remove from heat.
  6. Add the spices to the jar with the alcohol.
  7. Use a microplane (works best), or a grater to zest all of the limes and ginger.
  8. Add the ginger and the lime to the alcohol.
  9. Using a wooden spoon, push all of the ginger, lime zest, and spices into the alcohol so that it is submerged.
  10. The level of the alcohol should be at or near the rim of the jar. If it’s a little lower, add a splash of alcohol, until it nearly reaches the rim.
  11. Cover your jar, and if you are using a metal lid, place a piece of parchment paper over the aperture of the jar and place the lid on top, to avoid corroding the metal lid, and ruining your falernum!
  12. Now all you have to do is wait!

In a pinch, I have made this tincture and used it within 48 hours and it is flavorful and delicious I have also let it sit for longer periods of time - up to a month The flavor does deepen over time so if you are curious, experiment with how long you let it sit for.

From here, the possibilities are endless! You could:
  1. Add a tsp, or a tbsp to your tea, along with some honey or panela (if you can find it!) The carminative spices warm the body up and prepare it for digestion.
  2. Making a syrup with the tincture above is a great way to diversify your home's cold/flu/virus management strategies. The herbs in the falernum warm up the body core, and the cinnamon really helps with the warming, coating, and soothing of the throat. I find this syrup, dissolved in a warm tea (perhaps an herbal tea, with Hyssop, Violet, and Red Raspberry leaf) very effective when used at the first onset of a cold, especially when a sore throat is involved.
  3. If you wanted to make a syrup (1:1), with panela, or honey, you absolutely could by following these easy steps: Heat up 400 ml of water in a pot; Measure out 350 ml of honey, panela, raw cane sugar, or sweetener of your choice. Although honey may be my preferred choice, especially for cold prevention/mitigation; As the water warms up, add the sweetener of choice (not honey) and allow the pot to continue warming up – as soon as the water comes to a boil, remove from heat; If making with honey, simply warm the water up and as it is reaching a boil, remove from heat – Add the honey right away and stir until dissolved; Once your syrup cools, you can then add your tincture to it at 1:1.
  4. You can dilute the boozy syrup above with as much fresh squeezed lime juice as you want. This is especially refreshing in the summer months and makes a great aperitif before a big meal. From a traditional perspective, ice and cold drinks slow down digestion, so you may consider having it at room temperature… but we all know how nice it is to have a cold drink on a hot day!

Have fun, and enjoy!!
As always make sure to forage for plants away from roads and pollution as much as possible. Never overharvest any plant, as they are of course not only here for our enjoyment, but also here for the insects, bees, and birds. Have fun out there!
The information provided in this digital content is not medical advice, nor should it be taken or applied as a replacement for medical advice. Matthew Wood, the Matthew Wood Institute of Herbalism, ETS Productions, and their employees, guests, and affiliates assume no liability for the application of the information discussed.