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Whence the "Prohibition as Source of Cocktails" Concept?


Chris Amirault
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I've been enjoying the BarSmarts Wired course and especially the videos with Dale DeGroff and Dave Wondrich, who chart the history of mixology with great panache and erudition. However, I'm confused whenever they reject the notion that Prohibition was the source of all cocktails.

Surely, I'm a product of the New Cocktail History, and thus think that Prof. Jerry Thomas, Wondrich's Imbibe!, and other original sources are where we should start our conversations about cocktails. But clearly some wrongheaded folks believe that Prohibition is the source of all cocktails, or else why would DeGroff and Wondrich, among ohers, work so hard to shoot that myth down?

What's the origin of this historical narrative? What sources actually claim that Prohibition plays the central role in the development of cocktails?

Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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I won't pretend to know of any sources claiming this, but I think a lot of this comes from the recent bunch of "Prohibition" themed bars, like PDT, Violet Hour, etc. The newspapers get wind of these places and run with it.

Also, I think it's sort of folk legend that because alcohol was illicitly produced during Prohibition, it tasted like crap, and therefore it became necessary to create cocktails to mask the awful flavor of the booze.

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While I can't say where I've encountered it (if I have at all, the source escapes me), my thought would be that the narrative would go something like this:

1) In the good old days, man enjoyed unadulterated spirit, or at worst a simple 'cocktail' adding water, sugar & bitters.

2) Prohibition drastically reduced the quality of reasonably accessible spirits (bathtub gin, etc.).

3) Most cocktails developed out of elaborate attempts to mask the inferior quality booze.

True rye and true bourbon wake delight like any great wine...dignify man as possessing a palate that responds to them and ennoble his soul as shimmering with the response.

DeVoto, The Hour

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These versions given above are what I've seen as the 'Prohibition Origin' school, though I don't think I've ever actually seen a primary source for that idea, only other books or whatever debunking the myth (with no explanation as to it's origin). To me it sounds like what someone would come up with if they were simply sitting there drinking a cocktail and suddenly wondered where cocktails originated, and didn't actually bother to go find out but instead came up with something semi-plausible out of thin air.

Andy Arrington

Journeyman Drinksmith

Twitter--@LoneStarBarman

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I don't at all think of Prohibition as the origin of cocktails, but as a dark period in our history that nearly killed off one of America's great, original art forms. I think Wondrich makes the argument in Imbibe that the mixing of spirits can truly be considered America's first great culinary art. With the classic cocktail revival, or whatever you prefer to call it, I think that 70+ years later we're just beginning to undo the damage wrought by Prohibition. Sure, a few great drinks came out of Prohibition (perhaps, most notably, The Last Word), but so much was lost, and is only in the last decade or so being rediscovered. I can see making the argument that a focus on cocktails, i.e., short, mixed drinks served up (as opposed to punches, fizzes, etc., which were very popular until Prohibition) came out of the era.

"Martinis should always be stirred, not shaken, so that the molecules lie sensuously one on top of the other." - W. Somerset Maugham

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This sounds right to me:

While I can't say where I've encountered it (if I have at all, the source escapes me), my thought would be that the narrative would go something like this:

1) In the good old days, man enjoyed unadulterated spirit, or at worst a simple 'cocktail' adding water, sugar & bitters.

2) Prohibition drastically reduced the quality of reasonably accessible spirits (bathtub gin, etc.).

3) Most cocktails developed out of elaborate attempts to mask the inferior quality booze.

Does anyone have any examples of this version of cocktail history?

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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It's not uncommon for folks to say that many species of cocktail originated during prohibition, especially those where the spirit is less dominant. The idea being the additional ingredients were being added to cover up low quality spirits.

Not having seem the B.A.R. wired courses, I am not sure exactly what the revered gentlemen might be refuting.

However, going through the Savoy Cocktail Book, most of the cocktails actually have pre-prohibition sources, even the horrible ones.

To me, the big changes that happened during prohibition were:

Women started going to bars.

People started making cocktails at home.

It would be interesting to see an accurate accounting of those cocktails which can be confirmed to have originated in American during prohibition.

---

Erik Ellestad

If the ocean was whiskey and I was a duck...

Bernal Heights, SF, CA

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Now why didn't I think to turn to the internets?! While it's clear that lots of folks own Imbibe! out there, others are hawking the same old song. From the Cocktail Mixing Master [sic]:

The Prohibition that started in 1919 in the USA (a period of the prohibition of the sale of alcohol, believe it or not!) lead to many illegal and informal alcohol factories. In many cases the spirits produced tasted awful and in some case were even poisonous.

The Prohibition led to a huge illegal alcohol industry, ran by organised crime gangs in the USA.

During the same time, “speakeasies” – bars with restaurants and sometimes clubs – became very popular. Often, the bartenders would mix alcohol with a number of other ingredients like creams and juices to both hide it from the police (at least by the looks of it) and disguise the poor taste of the alcohol.

Inevitably, mixed drinks and cocktails soared in popularity.

After the Prohibition ended in 1933, bartenders and mixologists were free to experiment with spirits and liquors and this started the still-continuing cocktail age.

You can also learn how to make "classic Prohibition-era" drinks here, thanks to Mike "Drink Slinger" Vincent.

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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For an interesting glimpse into how "American cocktails" were perceived in Britain, particularly in fashionable London society c. 1905 - 1915, I highly recommend the novels of J. Philips Oppenheim, many of which are available on Project Gutenberg.

They seemed to be very simple concoctions involving some spirit like gin, sherry or vermouth, and lemon, perhaps sugar. Great mystery surrounded their preparation, but they were always prepared in a cocktail shaker. The best could be had at the American Bar in any major hotel in the various European capitals.

And people were making them at home.

There are also intriguing references to food being served in restaurants. All this, and usually a good yarn, if nothing much in the way of actual literature.

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I guess there's also the supposed fact that many bars/speakeasies didn't in fact sell any alcohol at all during prohibition, and instead requested that customers bring their own "atmosphere". It would therefore behove the establishment to have a large and varied supply of ingredients to sell to their patrons...

True rye and true bourbon wake delight like any great wine...dignify man as possessing a palate that responds to them and ennoble his soul as shimmering with the response.

DeVoto, The Hour

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What sources actually claim that Prohibition plays the central role in the development of cocktails?

Perhaps not a central role in the origin of cocktails, but didn't Prohibition have a big impact on sending American bartenders and drinkers offshore and thus spreading cocktails into the rest of the world and conversely at least contributing to the development of new cocktails through encounters with new ingredients?

It's almost never bad to feed someone.

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I've been checking out this UK TV series about a food journalist and comedian who drink and eat cuisines from different historical eras. This Youtube (start at 4:35) link shows head barman for the American Bar and Jared Brown discussing Prohibition era American cocktails. It seems like the two would know what they are talking about, so I blame the editing. The show certainly implies the cocktail was invented because of Prohibition. I've read Jared Brown before and he's written about 19th Century bartending previously, so again it must be the editing.

"Wives and such are constantly filling up any refrigerator they have a

claim on, even its ice compartment, with irrelevant rubbish like

food."" - Kingsley Amis

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The state of knowledge about cocktail history within the cocktail geek community is quite different from that in the wild. I can't say how many times I've been interviewed by lifestyle journalists who begin with the premise that cocktails were created during Prohibition. Informed authorities do not promulgate that theory, but considered as a subset of the population at large, the number of people who consult said authorites and take their information to heart cannot be considered as anything but miniscule.

aka David Wondrich

There are, according to recent statistics, 147 female bartenders in the United States. In the United Kingdom the barmaid is a feature of the wayside inn, and is a young woman of intelligence and rare sagacity. --The Syracuse Standard, 1895

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On a related note, there is this quote from a recent Salon article:

And then came Prohibition. Not only did the 14-year, near-total ban on making and selling alcohol fail to prevent many people from buying and drinking it (which, incidentally, Prohibition did not prohibit) -- but it gave home-distilled spirits a bad name that they're still struggling to shake. That's because once a black market developed for alcohol, the emphasis switched from quality to quantity. Bootleggers souped up their products with everything from methanol and acid to embalming fluid and horse manure, which, besides occasionally being poisonous, also made the alcohol taste bad -- in fact, the poor flavor of Prohibition moonshine helped encourage the popularity of mixers and cocktails.

 

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I have nothing really substantive to add other than I heard this from a guy at a party (that everyone was trying to avoid) and it didn't seem quite right to me. I don't profess to know much about cocktails, but aren't some, particularly Southern drinks like Mint Juleps and others like Rum Punch, from much earlier in American History? I'm willing to concede that the POPULARITY of cocktails is an American creation, and even that the wide-spread proliferation of them are post-Prohibition, but I would never say "the cocktail was created in Prohibition America."

"Life is a combination of magic and pasta." - Frederico Fellini

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On a related note, there is this quote from a recent Salon article:

And then came Prohibition. Not only did the 14-year, near-total ban on making and selling alcohol fail to prevent many people from buying and drinking it (which, incidentally, Prohibition did not prohibit) -- but it gave home-distilled spirits a bad name that they're still struggling to shake. That's because once a black market developed for alcohol, the emphasis switched from quality to quantity. Bootleggers souped up their products with everything from methanol and acid to embalming fluid and horse manure, which, besides occasionally being poisonous, also made the alcohol taste bad -- in fact, the poor flavor of Prohibition moonshine helped encourage the popularity of mixers and cocktails.

Kind of interesting that the prohibitionists used (likely overstated) accusations about adulterated liquor as an argument against legal alcohol. I suspect the notion that prohibition vastly increased adulteration of black market liquor is as much a myth as the previous assertion that much of the pre-prohibition product was adulterated or that cocktails were invented to cover up bad booze.

It's almost never bad to feed someone.

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I won't pretend to know of any sources claiming this, but I think a lot of this comes from the recent bunch of "Prohibition" themed bars, like PDT, Violet Hour, etc.

Why don't we have 19th century themed bars? Maybe Clover Club is more along those lines with their copper roof that was lifted from a bar in a mining town turned ghost town (which was probably late 19th century).

Sure, a few great drinks came out of Prohibition (perhaps, most notably, The Last Word)

Scofflaw, too.

Drinkboy:

The word "Scofflaw" has come to mean "A person who flouts the law, especially an unsustainable one.", but such was not always the case.

It was in 1923, when Delcevare King, a member of the Anti-Saloon League, posed a contest to create a new word in order to combat the continued drinking which was going on during American Prohibition. The new word was to be one "which best expresses the idea of a lawless drinker, menace, scoffer, bad citizen, or whatnot, with the biting power of 'scab' or 'slacker.'" The $200 prize elicited a huge response. On January 16th, 1924, the Boston Herald announced the winning word as "scofflaw", with the winnings shared by the two Boston area residents, Henry Irving Dale and Kate L. Butler, who both submitted it.

This was not the end of the story however, in just a little over a week, a salvo was launched from Harry's New York Bar in Paris, where they created a new drink and christened it the "Scofflaw".

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I won't pretend to know of any sources claiming this, but I think a lot of this comes from the recent bunch of "Prohibition" themed bars, like PDT, Violet Hour, etc.

Why don't we have 19th century themed bars? Maybe Clover Club is more along those lines with their copper roof that was lifted from a bar in a mining town turned ghost town (which was probably late 19th century).

They do exist. Probably the NYC bar most evocative of the late 19th Century with respect to decor, equipment (hand-chipped block ice, etc.) and mixology (although they do make drinks from later eras) would be Dutch Kills in Long Island City.

--

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I won't pretend to know of any sources claiming this, but I think a lot of this comes from the recent bunch of "Prohibition" themed bars, like PDT, Violet Hour, etc.

Why don't we have 19th century themed bars? Maybe Clover Club is more along those lines with their copper roof that was lifted from a bar in a mining town turned ghost town (which was probably late 19th century).

They do exist. Probably the NYC bar most evocative of the late 19th Century with respect to decor, equipment (hand-chipped block ice, etc.) and mixology (although they do make drinks from later eras) would be Dutch Kills in Long Island City.

Ah, yes, I loved that place. The bartender I had even had a waxed mustache like the dude from There Will Be Blood.

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  • 1 year later...

Today's Globe and Mail has an article on a purportedly growing trend in Toronto of serving drinks in teacups as a nod to Prohibition. (Never mind that Prohibition was much less stringent and shorter-lived in Canada.) My favourite quote from the article:

“Ironically the rediscovery of Prohibition is jump-starting cocktail culture,” [Clinton Pattemore, an instructor at the Toronto Institute of Bartending] says, “because a lot of cocktail culture is about understanding where it all started and what the original cocktails were like.”

Matthew Kayahara

Kayahara.ca

@mtkayahara

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