Over the veto of President Woodrow Wilson, Congress passed the Volstead Act on Oct. 29, 1919; the sale of alcohol was thus prohibited in the United States. Codified by the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Prohibition lasted nearly 14 years. With support from Democratic congressmen (and against the wishes of most Southern politicians), Prohibition was repealed via the 21st Amendment on Dec. 5, 1933.
Laws against liquor sales didn’t eliminate demand; instead, Prohibition encouraged the growth of an underground market. In the May 1930 issue of Popular Science Monthly, Dr. James Moran, head of the U.S. Treasury Department unit charged with enforcing Prohibition, admitted that the illegal beverage industry accounted for $3 billion a year in sales. That’s the equivalent of more than $45 billion in 2019 dollars.
Speakeasies (illegal bars or clubs) flourished across the country during Prohibition, especially in large cities. While some quality liquor was smuggled into the U.S. — Canadian whiskey and Cuban rum found their way across the border — much of the base alcohol served in speakeasies was amateur made, poor quality rotgut. Juniper-flavored spirits became popular because the herbs and spices helped obscure the unpalatable alcohol, often known as “bathtub gin.”
Some drinkers went so far as to drink alcohol that had been produced for other uses like solvents, hair tonics and camping stove fuels. As a deterrent, the U.S government required manufacturers of industrial alcohols to add poisons to their products. As a result, as author Sarah Churchwell writes in Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby, “soon hundreds of American were dying, poisoned by their own government.”
Even against such a horrifying backdrop, today Prohibition-era cocktails evoke thoughts of adventure and an acceptable (read: nonlethal) amount of danger. Many modern-day bars re-create the ambiance and drinks recipes of a century ago, using legal, quality ingredients. “There’s a kind of romance around the idea of drinking in a speakeasy,” says Brandi Dean, general manager of Monk’s Flask in Biltmore Park. “At any point, someone could come through the door and ruin everything.”
There’s also something attractive about simple, no-nonsense mixed drinks that appeals to a segment of the drinking public, says James Hitchcock, head bartender at Casablanca Cigar Bar in Biltmore Village. He builds upon the principles of Prohibition-era cocktails, making changes as needed. Those original cocktails included ingredients meant to hide some of the qualities of illicit spirits. “With gin, the trick was sugar and citrus,” Hitchcock says. “With whiskeys, the trick was sugar and bitters. They’ll hide the worst of the worst.”
But those flavor combinations endure in drinks made today with quality spirits. “The nice thing about Prohibition-style cocktails is that they come out even better if you use a good base spirit,” Hitchcock says. Some 100-year-old cocktail recipes “often call for 3, even 4 ounces,” Dean says. “You can’t do that!” She has found a number of winning classics in Ted Haigh‘s Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails.
Hitchcock notes that the Roaring ’20s units of measure for spirits — “two fingers, for example” — have been abandoned in favor of something more conventional. And today’s so-called Prohibition-era cocktails are designed to appeal to the modern palate, using less spirit and more fresh ingredients.
“But,” Dean admits with a chuckle, “they’re still pretty boozy.”
Because of the limited variety — and corresponding high price — of illicit spirits during Prohibition, speakeasies developed as many cocktails as they could from a short list of ingredients. “To make that 2 ounces last a little bit longer, you added club soda, sugar and citrus [and ice] and served it in a tall glass,” Hitchcock says, describing a highball. For sweetening, many Prohibition-era recipes called for a sugar cube; while Monk’s Flask and Casablanca use sugar cubes in select recipes, both tend toward using sugar syrup for a more refined drink.
Both Dean and Hitchcock note that their establishments serve much more than just Prohibition-era cocktails. Monk’s Flask offers beer and spirit pairings, and Casablanca features more than 160 whiskeys. But for drinkers interested in the lore surrounding the classic cocktails from illicit beginnings, they’re happy to share their knowledge. “We can give you a little bit of background story to go with your cocktail,” Dean says.
One thought on “Top Shelf Views: Asheville bartenders talk about Prohibition-era cocktails”
Did you know that prohibition started as a way for women to protect themselves? Often husbands, on payday, would drink away their earnings and come home to beat their wives. Since women couldn’t divorce, couldn’t have custody over their own children or property if they left, and couldn’t earn their own income, they devised a strategy that would keep their husbands from drinking. I think that part of prohibition is often missed, and it just points out how far the women’s movement has come in 100 years.