MxMo XXII: Prohibition-be-gone

Mixology MondayYou remember when you were a kid and Christmas finally rolled around? You were so psyched from the weeks of waiting that you were about to have a cute little aneurysm just waiting for Christmas morning to come, and when it finally happened — when you went to sleep on Christmas eve and then woke up with a start — you went rushing helter-skelter down to the living room to freak out under the Christmas tree, oblivious to the fact that it was 5:30 AM and, aside from your similarly over-stimulated siblings, nobody else in the house realized it was time to get rolling.

For Jeffrey Morgenthaler, our gracious host this month, Repeal Day is Christmas morning. Ready to party with the Dewar’s people in New York, Jeffrey popped up his MxMo roundup while many of his fellow bloggers — including Rick, Marleigh, Jay and myself, among others — were still lounging around, thinking we had all the time in the world to get our posts together.

You can’t blame him, though — Jeffrey orchestrated some wildly popular Repeal Day events last year, and this year it seems to be catching on more than ever. And for a bartender and card-carrying booze geek like Jeffrey, the anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition offers no fewer reasons to celebrate than any day that involves a fat guy in a red suit.

But while this Repeal Day will be full of people wearing fedoras and vintage cocktail dresses meant to evoke the 1930s, tipping back period-appropriate cocktails, martinis in teacups and the occasional shot of bourbon, let’s not forget what a really fucking bleak time Prohibition was in many ways. I don’t just mean the absence of legal booze –though that sucked plenty, I’m sure — I mean the total destruction of careers and livelihoods that took place when bars were shuttered, wine and beer (and the tips and revenues that accompanied them) were removed from restaurants, breweries and distilleries were shut down, and the whole resource chain and infrastructure that was somehow related to the production of beverage alcohol was knocked ass-over-teakettle by overambitious legislation.

And consider those who defied the law — sure, the whole speakeasy thing is big now, but it’s not like the real deal were serving custom-crafted cocktails using hand-chiseled ice. Bad booze, no regulatory controls, block-and-drop joints, dealing with “liquor producers” with the technical skill and professional ethics of modern-day meth-lab chemists, and the ever-present threat of arrest and scandal brought more than just the hint of danger to the whole business.

Giggle Water - Home-made GinCase in point: gin. “Bathtub gin” is a cliche left over from the era, an allusion to the discrete mixing of grain alcohol with oil of juniper to produce something that kind of, maybe, if you’re desperate, sort of tastes like gin. Need something closer to the real deal? Try this — the recipe is from Giggle Water, a 1928 book that contains a number of recipes for making your own brandies, cordials and gins, along with cocktail recipes blatantly stolen word-for-word from Jerry Thomas.

Imitation Old Tom London Gin

Dissolve in 1 quart 95 per cent alcohol, 1 drachm oil of coriander, 1 drachm oil of cedar, 1/2 drachm oil of bitter almonds, 1/2 drachm oil of angelica, and 1/2 drachm oil of sweet fennel; add it to 40 gallons French spirit 10 above proof, with 1 pint orange-flower water, 1 quart syrup and 1 drachm oil of juniper dissolved in sufficient 95 per cent alcohol to be clear.

And if it wasn’t clear? Lacking Jeffrey’s Brita filter, Giggle Water‘s author suggests this method:

To Clarify Gin or Cordials

Pulverize 1 pound ordinary crystals of alum, divide into 12 equal portions, and put up in blue papers marked No. 1. Next take 6 ounces carbonate (the ordinary sesquicarbonate) of soda, divide it into 12 parts and put them up in white papers marked No. 2. In place of the 6 ounces of carbonate of soda, 4 ounces dry salt of tartar may be substituted, but the white papers containing this latter substance must be kept in a dry, well corked bottle or jar. To clarify 30 to 36 gallons gin, dissolve the contents of one of the blue papers, as prepared above in about a pint of hot water, and stir it into the liquor thoroughly. Then dissolve the contents of one of the white papers in about 1/2 pint hot water, and stir well into the liquor; bung the cask close, and let the whole remain till the next day.

30 to 36 Gallons? This recipe ain’t for someone putting up a bottle to make Bronxes for the missus and the golf partners on a Saturday afternoon.

Given the way such concoctions must have tasted, it’s not surprising that many cocktail guides published soon after repeal expressed revulsion for the sweet, creamy cocktails that were created in an attempt to obscure the horrid taste of such hooch. Here’s David Embury with a particularly memorable piece of vitriol from 1948:

So unutterably vile were these synthetic concoctions that the primary object in mixing a cocktail became the addition of a sufficient amount of sweetened, highly flavored, and otherwise emollient and anti-emetic ingredients (cream, honey, Karo, canned fruit juices, etc.) to make it reasonably possible to swallow the resultant concoction and at the same time to retain a sufficient content of renatured alcohol to insure ultimate inebriety. Just how much dilution of the “gin”-bottle contents might be necessary to accomplish this supposedly salutary result depended largely on the intestinal fortitude and esophageal callosity of the particular individual involved. However, only the most rugged Spartan with at least ten years of vigorous prohibition training could be expected to survive — or, indeed, to get down — a drink containing as much as 50 percent of the gin, whisky, brandy, or what have you of those days.

Small wonder, then, that this period gave birth to such pernicious recipes as the Alexander — equal parts of gin, creme de cacao, and sweet cream; the Orange Blossom — equal parts of gin and orange juice, with or without the white of an egg; the Bee’s Knees — equal parts of gin, lemon juice, and honey; and so on ad nauseam. And it is only by regarding them as a more or less logical, albeit regrettable, aftermath of prohibition influence that one can account for the many ridiculous formulas still found in the average book of cocktail recipes of today.

So, in other words, Carry Nation is responsible for the alco-pop.

Bee's KneesThis post is already reaching Heugelian length, so I’ll stop with the ranting and head for the liquor cabinet. Bee’s Knees, anyone?

Bee’s Knees, adapted from The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, by David Embury

  • 2 ounces gin
  • 1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
  • 1/4 ounce honey

Shake vigorously with cracked ice. Writes Embury, “Early in the book I spoke in disparaging terms of the Bee’s Knees. This, however, was because as it originally came out during prohibition days it consisted of equal parts of lemon juice, honey, and gin. If made as a variation of the standard Gin Sour, merely substituting honey for the sugar syrup, it is acceptable.”

Acceptable. Yeah, that pretty much says it. (And before anyone gets the wrong idea from the photo: the Bee’s Knees recipe ain’t in Giggle Water; it is, however, a product of the same era, hence the pairing in the photo.)

So that’s it for this Mixology Monday — head on over to Jeffrey’s site soon for the roundup — oh, it’s already there. Never mind.

10 Responses to MxMo XXII: Prohibition-be-gone

  1. I think this was a trick. Jeffrey didn’t actually post for mixology monday! He’s trying to use his premature wrap-up as if it was his post! Very clever, but I am not fooled.

    I also wait until the last moment to post and was thus left out.

  2. Though Prohibition did do all sorts of nasty things, it also resulted in lots of fun stories that my grandfather used to tell me as a kid, when he lived in downtown LA with his mother and observed the man across the street running a speakeasy (and brewing the aforementioned bathtub gin).

    Great post, as usual!

  3. Repeal Day link fest…

    Repeal Day is hitting it big on the internet this year. Here’s a collection of links:
    First up, I’ve been remiss in not yet linking to Dewar’s promotional site. It’s pretty awesome.
    Jeffrey Morgenthaler is celebrating in NYC …

  4. Obligatory stickler post…

    As much as I love Embury for some things, such as encouraging bartenders to roll their own cocktails instead of slavishly following recipes, he has an annoying tendency to re-write both history and drink recipes in his writings.

    There were plenty of sweet drinks before the Volstead act took effect in the US and plenty afterwards. Americans have always loved sweet things. Just because these cocktails aren’t to Mr. Embury’s taste, doesn’t mean they should be dismissed or the recipes completely re-written.

    Besides, I place the blame for the Modern Super-Extra Dry Martini squarely at the feet of Mr. Embury and his disciples like Amis and Calabrese. Which is the greater sin?

    I do think Alcopop can be blamed on Prohibition, partially in the sense you mention, as it encouraged liquor producers to experiment with creative ways to make alcoholic beverages palatable without distillation or fermentation.

    Also, it allowed fewer, larger, more profit oriented companies to control a greater portion of the booze produced in the US.

  5. Why pick on Embury for rewriting recipes? I’ve got a bookcase full of cocktail guides in which virtually every author tweaks a recipe one way or another, revising them to the times and their tastes. With the exception of Wondrich’s Imbibe!, offhand I can’t think of a single one that prints the “original” (or early) recipe alongside the one being suggested.

    And many of them should be changed: consider the Applejack Rabbit, which appeared in a much different form in Savoy than in Embury. As you wrote over at eGullet, the Savoy has equal parts maple syrup and applejack, an excessively sweet approach; as a result, you altered the recipe to fit your taste, which is the same as what Embury did. The result? A decent drink — and there’s no shame in that. (And as an aside, who’s to say the recipe that appeared in Savoy or Macelhone was the original recipe, anyway? First appearance in print, maybe, but that’s not the same thing.)

    Ditto with the Bee’s Knees — as Embury says, it was being poured at equal parts gin, lemon and honey; as curious as I am to experience the authentic drinks of past eras, I hate choking down good booze in a bad drink just because it’s authentic. Tweak it to a more palatable approach, keeping the ingredients, and you have something pleasant to drink — which is the whole point of mixing one in the first place.

    And I don’t think Embury discounts the equally execrable drinks that existed prior to Prohibition (though I don’t have my copy in front of me to back that up) — the section above was lifted from a passage about the era, so that’s why it’s so targeted.

    But you’re right, there are plenty of sticky-sweet drinks in pre-Volstead books — though it should be noted that many are indicated or implied to be made for the ladies, and considering that one by-product of Prohibition was the greater presence of women in bars, I wonder if bars and cocktail manuals of the era and that followed had a greater number of such recipes owing to the demographic change, along with the still prevailing notion that females only drank sweeter drinks. I’ve got nothing to base that on, I’m just sayin’.

  6. Because he is so pick-on-able?

    The beautiful thing about Embury is that he put himself and his opinions out there in such an oblivious way. Before him few folks had dared to voice their opinions about cocktails, or even had taken cocktails so seriously in print.

    I do think though that he must be appreciated as a revisionist, and as we look back historically see him as such.

    The proportions of his recipes are often so different from the original recipes that I have no doubt that earlier mixologists would have insisted that he give them new names.

    Just for me, personally, I might think that a drink composed of 1 1/2 oz applejack, 1 1/2 oz maple syrup, the juice of 1 lemon, and the juice of 1 orange is disgusting, but, on the other hand to off-handedly revise it without giving credit to the creator, or its original proportions is also wrong. There is no way for me to know that I am right, or that my interpretation of the ingredients is correct.

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