You 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.
Case 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.
This 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.