Rob Hardy on books

 

Article Comment 

Mixology History, with Recipes

 

 

Rob Hardy

 

It was called "The Noble Experiment" by some, and "The Methodist Hellenium" by others. Prohibition was imposed on the US from 1920 to 1933. Forbidding alcohol didn't make alcohol any less available or drinking any less appealing, it caused distrust of government and amusement in how powerless government efforts were, and it famously accelerated organized crime. It didn't make people stop drinking, but it changed the way they drank. The saloon was killed off, and the speakeasy and the cocktail bar were born, along with home bars equipped for making cocktails. A brief and informal history of prohibition, concentrating on the changes in drinking patterns and recipes, is Contraband Cocktails: How America Drank When It Wasn't Supposed To (Melville House) by Paul Dickson. It is lively and amusing, and ought to be of interest to plenty of people now that mixology is undergoing a revival. Here is how all those drinks started being mixed and especially shaken. 

 

 

 

The hypocrisy of prohibition is dramatically shown in the doings within the District of Columbia itself. Liquor was rampant in Washington after its first tavern was founded in 1801. Government officials were not known for abstaining, but legislators figured that Washington ought to be a good example to the nation, and so it was voted dry two years before the rest of the country. The legal saloons were closed, only to open up more numerously as illegal ones, and people got acquainted with bootleggers and how to make bathtub gin. One newspaper wrote of the point of honor in the new drinking: "Folks seemed to imagine that if they didn't serve cocktails, other folks would think they were obeying the law, and such a thought, to a liberty loving people, was naturally unbearable. So people served cocktails under prohibition who had never dreamed of serving them in their own homes before." The legislators who had made alcohol illegal in the district were no examples. A bootlegger named George Cassidy was making twenty deliveries a day to senators and representatives, Republicans and Democrats, dries as well as wets. Taxpayers funded his office and storeroom which he was assigned within the Old House Office Building. 

 

 

 

Before prohibition, saloons had boomed, and when the technology of refrigeration improved, output of breweries increased and there were soon more saloons than anyone could use. The refrigeration would be used for the ice essential in the cocktails of the speakeasies that replaced the saloons. A writer in a Hearst publication wrote, "I predict the day when the New York speakeasy will shine on the pages of history, niched in honor beside the Boston Tea Party." Speakeasies were platforms for social change, as Dickson tells it. Not only did they encourage jazz and swing music, but many were upscale places, smart clubs in which people gathered for the latest in drinks as well as music. The men in such clubs wore tuxes, and the women wore the new outfit, the cocktail dress, but new togs were not the only change for women. The bigger change was that they were there at all. Saloons had had only men as customers, but with speakeasies, there were no laws or traditions to follow. The new way of drinking advanced women's rights, and the women were customers for an increasingly varied and fancy style of drinks. 

 

 

 

The reason for the move to mixed drinks was that the hooch available wasn't as smooth or drinkable as had been available from the professional distillers before prohibition. Fuss a drink up with flavors and fruit juice, and it might not be half bad. The drinks were iced for the same reason. No one had seen a cocktail shaker in the old saloons, but a shaker was useful in icing and frothing the liquid, as one commentator wrote, "in order to get rid of the liniment taste and make it resemble something to drink." The shaker was an item selling unprecedentedly well as a Christmas present in 1922. One other piece of hardware for the new drinkers was the pocket flask, as fancy as one's budget allowed. There were also canes that were hollow to hold liquor, and some flasks that would strap around the chest to hold a quart or two. 

 

 

 

Here is a useful glossary of terms used or invented during prohibition that we still use. "Hijacking," first used in 1923, was originally pirating of alcohol delivery vehicles. "Organized crime" dates from 1929. H. L. Mencken, who enjoyed a drink and deplored prohibition, coined the word "bootician," meaning a high-toned, big city bootlegger. That term was useful at the time, but we don't have a use for it now. But "scofflaw" was in 1924 deliberately coined in a contest for the best word describing a violator of prohibition. Prohibition is over, but we still have scofflaws; the word is so natural that it is a surprise that Shakespeare never heard it. 

 

 

 

About a third of the book is devoted to "The Formulary - AKA 'Liberty's Libations.'" It includes recipes for drinks famous, infamous, and obscure. Some of the infamous ones bear a symbol "to signify that the drink is included for historic or literary reasons rather than as one that might be worthy of replication." The reasons are spelled out in the "cultural context" section given for most of the drinks. You will find here how to make the favorite cocktails of various presidents, and W. C. Fields. Hilariously, the list does not include the "Cowboy Cocktail," a concoction of iced Scotch and cream) described in The Standard Bartender's Guide of 1934, and included there for completeness, but therein listed as worthy of disapproval. The Guide became such a bible in these matters that the recipe was included in subsequent guides from other sources and on web pages, but without any warning that the drink is terrible. I can't say; I won't be trying a Cowboy Cocktail or even the drinks listed here that are supposed to be good, since I never drink alcohol. (So maybe I am the wrong person to be reviewing this book; but it is good fun, and instructive, and if you do drink, I guess you will enjoy more than just the reading.) There is a teetotaler's delight given here, "Mock Champagne," made from grape juice and club soda, but I'll just stick to orange juice.

 

 

back to top

 

 

 

Follow Us:

Follow Us on Facebook

Follow Us on Twitter

Follow Us via Email