How The Prohibition Era Shaped The Way We Drink Today

Sep 27, 2012 2:01 pm

By drink, we mean drink very well

Photo: Downtown Warren History on Flickr
Photo: Downtown Warren History on Flickr
Law enforcement would often crack down on illegal bars.
 
Variations of the Southside cocktail include topping with champagne.
Variations of the Southside cocktail include topping with champagne.
 

With Boardwalk Empire back on the air, we’ve had Prohibition-era drinking on the mind. See our list of 10 favorite cocktails from the time period. With this, we asked columnist Simon Ford to bless us with his knowledge on the topic.

The dark age of the cocktail in the United States
The U.S. went through a bleak period in cocktail culture in the 1920s. Prohibition had hit and most bartenders changed professions or moved to other countries to continue their trade at the high level at which they were once accustomed. Speakeasies across America served moonshine and bathtub gin to undiscerning customers, while the upper classes had stockpiled their cellars (how very wise of them).

House parties were legal, however, as it was the sale of liquor that was prohibited, and not its consumption. The upper crust of society traveled abroad to experience the great bartender service offered during the time at exotic locations such as London, Paris and Cuba. Cocktail culture may have been struggling in the U.S., but the rest of the world inherited talent and business. Global cocktail culture flourished and made its way back to the U.S. house party during the 1920s via the bon vivants. Here are some great Prohibition Era cocktails for you to mix at home while watching the latest episode of Boardwalk Empire, or anytime.

The Last Word Cocktail
The Last Word is undoubtedly one of my favorite cocktails of all time. There are complex flavors from the gin and its botanicals, the essence of herbs and over 150 spices of the Alps from the Chartreuse, and the bittersweet taste of the Maraschino. The combination is helped nicely by the addition of lime juice, which solidifies a perfectly refreshing and complex cocktail. The Last Word is one of the few great drinks to come from the U.S. during Prohibition. It was allegedly invented in 1922 at the Detroit Athletic Club by bartender Frank Fogarty. If he is still alive, I would like to shake his hand.

¾ oz. Fords Gin
¾ oz. Green Chartreuse 
¾ oz. Luxardo Maraschino liqueur
¾ oz. freshly squeezed lime juice

Shake ingredients and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

The Southside Cocktail
The Southside is a Prohibition-era creation that was the house cocktail at the famous Manhattan speakeasy 21 Club. Many stories surround its origin: there are rumors of it being served by the South Side Gang of Chicago, or more believably that it was first created at the Southside Sportsmen’s Club on Long Island, a place known for its mint juleps. Either way, this drink is another Prohibition gem and one of the most approachable gin cocktails still around today.

2 oz. Fords Gin 
6-8 fresh mint sprigs
¾ oz. simple syrup
1 oz. fresh lemon juice
Splash of soda (optional)

Shake ingredients and strain into a chilled cocktail coupe. Garnish with a mint leaf.

The cocktail is often considered to be the mojito’s “gin cousin” and is sometimes topped with champagne to make a Southside Fizz. This drink refreshes the palate between bites of food and the acidity of the champagne is good for digestion

Have shaker, will travel
Prohibition was enacted in the U.S on January 17, 1920. While some of the more conservative states had actually started a few years before, this was the date that would officially mark the beginning of a new era. From then on, millions of Americans would be considered criminals simply for wanting to have a drink. Gangsters such as Al Capone and Bugsy Siegel took control and “speakeasy bars,” named such because you were to “speak easy” so as not attract attention in the joint, opened everywhere. It took 13 years before Prohibition ended, making the Eighteenth Amendment the only one to be repealed to this day.

The period before Prohibition (1890s – 1919) is often considered the Golden Era of the cocktail. Some of the most iconic drinks we still sip on were invented, the martini became the “it” drink and bartenders were the stars of their neighborhoods. The rest of the world’s cocktail culture also benefitted from this era, with great bartenders such as Harry Craddock, author of the Savoy Cocktail Book, and Eddie Woelke of New York City’s Weylin Hotel leaving for places where they could show off their craft. Along their journey, these bartenders created two more of my favorite cocktails from this era.

Eddie Woelke and the El Presidente
Eddie Woelke moved to several places during Prohibition, including the Plaza Athénée in Paris and the Sevilla Biltmore in Havana, Cuba, where he is credited with creating a number of classic Cuban cocktails including the El Presidente.

1 ½ parts Cana Brava Rum 
½ oz Cointreau
¾ oz Dolin Dry Vermouth
1 dash EO Grenadine

Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail coupe. Garnish with an orange twist.

Harry Craddock, the Savoy and the White Lady Cocktail
Harry Craddock is rumored to have mixed the last legal drink before Prohibition was enacted in New York. It was undoubtedly a publicity stunt before he packed his bar kit and became the head bartender at The Savoy in London. It was here that he would make a name for himself and write one of the most important cocktails books of the period. The book features the White Lady, a cocktail that has since become synonymous with the hotel’s famous bar.

2 oz. Plymouth Gin
1 oz. Cointreau
1 oz. fresh lemon juice
Egg white (optional)

Shake ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail coupe. Garnish with a twist of lemon (orange twists also work well).

Prohibition was finally repealed on December 5, 1933. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a notorious martini drinker, made the announcement and a nation celebrated. The noble experiment had concluded and we learned that banned alcohol is, well, silly, and that most people enjoy a good drink from time to time. What the era did give us, however, was plenty of worthy stories leading to some fantastic television shows, books and films, not to mention a few exquisite cocktails.

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