Much has been written about Prohibition in the United States (1920-1933),but precious little has been written about the paradoxical rise of the cocktail and a stylish, urbane “cocktail culture” which began to flower at the very moment—January 16, 1920—when mixed drinks and all other forms of alcohol became illegal.
This book attempts to remedy the situation with a discourse on prohibition cocktails followed by an annotated formulary of drinks from the Dry Years, including many drinks which were created during the period by expatriate American bartenders.
Almost a hundred years after the fact, Prohibition still holds a deep fascination for Americans. At the most superficial and visible level, it survives in the many Prohibition Era faux speakeasies which dot the landscape. The speakeasy revival began in the late 20thcentury with an occasional novelty and continued to rise steadily through to the first decade of the 21stcentury, at the end of which it boomed.
Take the city of Boston. As of this writing, it had a dozen Prohibition themed bars and restaurants, such as the Carrie Nation Restaurant and Bar which opened in 2013. The Carrie Nation is in the block next to the Massachusetts State House on Beacon Hill, one of the46 locations where the 18th Amendment to the Constitution that banned alcohol was ratified. Around the corner, there's a bar across from the State House known as the 21st Amendment which alludes to the Constitutional Amendment which repealed Prohibition. It is next to the apartment building where John F. Kennedy lived when a bachelor.
There is fascination abroad as well. “Taking inspiration from America's Prohibition era," the London Town webpage reported in 2014, “London is currently brimming with elusive bars hidden behind unmarked doors and unassuming entrances. With cocktails in teacups, suave jazz and glamorous dress codes, they invite those in the know to intimate yet raucous evenings. So, dust off your dancing shoes and dig out your map as London invites you into an underground world of illicit drinking.”
The trend seems to have been first spotted in 2009 when the trade magazine Restaurant Business noted the seemingly counterintuitive strategy of marketing an establishment by making it hard to find, but that's what is being done by a growing number of bars and lounges. “Modern-day ‘speakeasies’" the magazine reported," don't put up any signage, have unlisted phone numbers, require passwords and are often found behind secret entrances down shadowy alleys. Just as New York was the speakeasy capital during Prohibition--epitomized by the 21 Club--the modern trend began there but the phenomenon is spreading to other cities.”
“Today's speakeasy is the bar as cinema,” was one explanation given in the magazine Art Culinare in 2010.“It invites customers to become actors in a flickering movie from a nostalgic part of our collective history. Like the forbidden allure of an opium den, the modern speakeasy is a lush and dreamy stage of punched tin ceilings, dark wood paneling and potions swirling in glasses made luminous by the velvet light of flickering candles. Atmosphere is not the 21stcentury speakeasy's only enticement. The drinks featured tended to be of the period harking back to a time when sipping a Manhattan, Bronx or a Mary Pickford carried with it the titillating risk of getting caught.”
Coinciding with this came the aromas and flavors of the Dry years. Bathtub gin and raw rye whiskey from tidewater stills were reincarnated as small-batch gins and ryes. Bitters and high end tonics and mixers were coming into play finding new markets.
The quality of life around the bar improved when speakeasies reemerged a few years back Food editor Devra First wrote in the Boston Globe in August,2014,“The trend has brought us better bartending and ingredients; it has restored to prominence delightful drinks we seldom got to enjoy and birthed plenty of new ones.”
Conveniently overlooked in this neo-speakeasy movement is the fact that the new joints feature drinks made with high-end liquor coddled by “craft” bartenders who work hard to create cocktails which often start at $10 a pop. As Felicity Cloake wrote in a critique of the modern speakeasy in the New Statesman in 2011,“Far from the heyday of mixology that some sources claim, this was a period in which cocktails were nasty, brutish and short.” Among other sources Cloake cites Frank Shay who wrote in Esquire magazine in 1934, the year after Repeal: "The basic raw materials then available—and I use the term 'raw' advisedly—made it imperative that they be polished or doctored or decorated ... in order that they might pass to their true goal without too great distress to the drinker."
Meanwhile, the same urge that has given us the 21stcentury speakeasy has also given us a revival of interest in shakers, hip flasks, and the hardware trappings of prohibition. Walk into any Pottery Barn and you’ll find a Speakeasy Collection inspired by the vintage barware of the era. And men’s clothier J. Crew offers a speakeasy hip-flask with the come-on: “Channel speakeasy-era panache with our leather-bound flask, a throwback to the heyday of discreet drinking.”
Amazon.com offers dozens of hip-flasks, including one described as a “Personalized Engraved Cross, Jesus, Christian 12 Oz Stainless Steel Pocket Hip Drinking Flask for Men and Women" as well a four-ounce flask hidden inside the cover of a Holy Bible—novelties which would have been most offensive to those elders of the Protestant denominations of the Prohibition Era who sought to have all references to wine expunged from both the Old and New Testaments by turning wine into grape juice.
Reminders of the era abound in popular culture where the Dry Years have their own solid niche, having given rise to a generation of romantic "characters"— the flapper, the private eye, the organized crime boss, the corrupt enforcer, the bootlegger, and the rumrunner—who live on in various media. Not only, for example, does The Great Gatsby hang on into the present, but it has been made into four Hollywood films (1926, 1949, 1974,and 2013) and one made-for-television film (2000).
There is even an emerging archaeology of Prohibition as entrepreneurs seek old speakeasy sites to be given new life. In 2013—the 80thanniversary of Repeal—a collaboration between Preservation Detroit and the Wayne State University Department of Anthropology uncovered the existence of an illegal Prohibition-era speakeasy beneath Tommy's Detroit Bar & Grill at 624 Third Street. It was rumored that the original speakeasy had ties to the infamous Purple Gang and other underworld organizations. Also in 2013,theDayton Daily News reported that it had discovered the existence of an unusually decorated basement room in an East Third Street commercial building which fits the long-running local legend about a hidden piece of downtown's Prohibition-era history. This room was part of a network of speakeasies reachable through underground steam heating tunnels crisscrossing downtown.
But before the cocktail hour arrives, let us take a look at the subject through the prism of one real character—a bone fide bootlegger—named George L.Cassiday, but remembered by the color of his fedora. Perhaps more than any other single individual, he served to exemplify and, ultimately, undermine the folly of the era.