“Dark and guarded doors opened into a spreading world of enchantment; a world of soft-lights, seductive scents, silken music, adroit entertainment, smoke and laughter, of perfection of food and service, of wines and liquors of the first quality, all in a setting of gold and silver and brocade, velvet, iron, glass and exotic woods”
For many people Joseph Sobol’s description of a 1920s speakeasy sums up Prohibition and its effects on the drinking public in the US. It was a time of luxury, excess and refinement; it was the golden era of the bartender and the cradle for Cocktail Culture as we know it today. Everyone was either drinking, had just finished a drink or was just about to have one. It was populated by larger than life figures such as “Lucky” Luciano and of course “ Scarface” Capone and every socially conscious young man carried a hip flask (or Hip flask!).
Yet the reality is somewhat different. Yes, Prohibition was a paradigm shift in the alcohol industry, the drinking habits of a nation ( and by extension the world) and the world of bartending. But it was only a silver age, following a golden period at the turn of the century and preceding a bronze age that is only now fading away. It was an excessive reaction to an excessive law and the hyper accelerated metabolism of Prohibition changed the social landscape in ways that the Drys ( as the anti-alcohol movement was called) could never have imagined and would never have wanted.
The 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act which preceded it have long been misinterpreted and abused. It was conceived as a necessary measure to save America from the drunkenness and moral corruption that many saw as ever increasing. After the US effort in the Great War which saw a successful dry run for Prohibition the Drys saw an opportunity to return to a more Victorian Era. Through a powerful lobby group the Temperance Society convinced many politicians to support their Bill to ban the making or distribution of alcohol except for medicinal purposes. With hindsight we can see that this was as naïve as a belief in the Tooth Fairy and the discovery of a still producing 130 gallons of Whiskey a day on the farm of one of the authors of the Amendment two years into it shows the ‘political’ nature of the decision. But on 16th Jan 1920 America awoke to life under Prohibition – “a great social and economic experiment” as President Hoover called it.
Loopholes in the law were quickly exploited – it was only illegal to make, transport, buy or sell alcohol- if you had purchased it before Prohibition then you could still drink. Thus private clubs would claim pre-1920 purchase and the cocktail party in private houses became de rigeur. Much of this was hardly new to some people however with the wealthier classes long appreciating the Bronx and the Martini before dinner. What the Drys had underestimated is the effect of denying spirits to a population who had no real experience of them – suddenly huge tracts of the US that had traditionally drunk only beer or whiskey became thirsty for spirits and the Cocktail Age had begun.
Another potential problem was the mere enforceability of the Act when it came to prohibiting supply of alcohol. With the 18th came 1520 new Federal agents to guard the 19000 miles of borders and coastline and Prohibition soon came to be seen as an open invitation for anyone who was even marginally involved in the rackets to enrich themselves beyond their wildest beliefs. From Capone ( earning an estimated $60m a year before payoffs) to the beat cop warning gangsters of forthcoming raids money flowed as freely as the illicit booze. Captain Bill McCoy became one of the most feted of ‘rumrunners’ with his unvarying quality and lack of skulduggery and his name still endures as a mark of authenticity.
It was due to patchy quality and unscrupulous traders that cocktails became more prevalent. With this inconsistency in the basic liquors came imaginative concoctions to improve and smooth away the rough edges of less refined spirits. For the first time ingredients such as grenadine, bitters and juices became more popular, as did cream. Yet these were very much American concoctions: as they say “In America we drink to get drunk, whilst the British are only interested in seeing how much you can drink without getting drunk” this was described more accurately in the post Prohibition Standard Bartender’s Guide that talked of drinks “obviously of irresponsible origin”. Cocktails, though now drunk by the masses, were primarily in two types: sweet and thick to disguise the poor quality or quick and easy for fast intake. Their names often predicted their effects, such as the aptly named Mule Hind Leg Cocktail!
The pattern of American drinking was changing, sometimes permanently. First Irish Whiskey became unpopular because much of the lowest quality bootleg hooch was invariably passed off as ‘Irish’. Secondly Gin assumed great popularity because of the simplicity of making it at home (ethyl alcohol and Oil of juniper). It has long been said that the Bronx died because of overuse during Prohibition. Finally America moved steadily away from its preoccupation with bourbon and into Rum from the Caribbean, Tequila from Mexico and Canadian whiskey. Being forced to look abroad did much for the variations in new drink recipes.
Conversely however, professional bartending suffered. If you could pour a drink you could have a job in 1920s America but the ‘great bartenders’ chose to pursue their careers legitimately elsewhere – predominantly in the “American Bars” in London and on the Continent. One US writer lamented the loss of such favourites as “ the Bamboo Cocktails at the Holland House… the Clover Clubs at the Buckingham…(and) the Old Fashioneds at the Imperial” whilst bars like Harry’s New York Bar in Paris became the new shakeries with the creation of such drinks as the Sidecar, the White Lady and of course the Red Snapper (which was to become the Bloody Mary). Post Prohibition cocktail invention became the preserve of marketing departments such as Galliano’s Harvey Wallbanger and Seagram’s gin and grapefruit failure called a Seabreeze. Never again could we think of “the cocktail’s laboratory being the local bar- its chief scientist being the fellow with the handlebar moustache standing behind the mahogany, its consumer and judge the man with his foot on the brass rail”.
What Prohibition took away from one side of the bar it added to the other. For the first time women were admitted equally with men to the new breed of bar. No speakeasy could afford to discriminate by gender, so women, from “well born damsels with one foot on the brass rail, tossing off Martinis” to Mother accompanying Father down to Cassidy’s, helped to civilise bars in a way the Drys couldn’t – they ordered drinks alongside the men. Although critics grumbled the easy social mingling and the legal cocktail lounges they spawned were too obviously an improvement on before.
The largest economic effect of Prohibition, other than the enriching of the gangsters was in the drinks companies. Before Prohibition America was dotted with small distillers with names like Sunny Brook, Chicken Cock and Green River Bourbon. Post Prohibition the public had developed tastes for gin and moved slowly back to Bourbon thus it was the plentifully stocked Canadian Seagram and the British firms like Gordons who benefited. It was due to Prohibition that three of the world’s largest drinks companies are British and not American owned. A period of ‘merger mania’ took place and some of America’s finest independent distilleries closed. But not only brands disappeared: almost overnight the US Rye whiskey vanished and took with it a host of cocktails for which Bourbon was a poor substitute.
After 14 years of hip flasks lifted above faces both male and female; of speakeasies; gangster bootleggers and government agents (or G-men) in comic-opera disguises the government repealed prohibition on December 5th 1933. The ‘great noble experiment’ was finally over. A massive folly that rather than reduce drinking made the cocktail an act of defiance, a blow for civilised values and the urban citizens’ rebuff to Bible Belt tyranny.