Chef Mike provides the skinny on how to shake up a sophisticated sip
“Our country has deliberately undertaken a great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose.” — President Herbert Hoover concerning Prohibition, 1928
“I’m telling my moll to get dolled up in her glad rags because we are heading to the juice joint to get blottoed on legal hooch, have a scronch and then beat our gums until the mazuma runs out.” — Half the population of the country when Prohibition was repealed, Dec. 5, 1933
If you were unfortunate enough to have been subjected to the “noble experiment” and spectacular failure known as Prohibition, Dec. 5, 1933 would have been like Christmas, your birthday and the Fourth of July all rolled into one.
Prohibition made it illegal to produce, import, transport or sell alcohol in the United States for 13 long, denial -filled years. Rather than eradicate the temptations and evils of liquor, Prohibition turned a lot of law-abiding citizens into criminals simply for the crime of enjoying a cool Gin Rickey or a stiff Monkey Gland. Once the fruit became forbidden, it became even more desirable, leading to the emergence of speakeasies, bathtub gin—and the continued rise of the modern cocktail.
Prior to Prohibition, mixed drinks had been experiencing what is now referred to as the “Golden Age of Cocktails.” Bartenders were letting their creative juices flow, inventing cocktails that not only tasted fantastic, but were made with a theatrical flair that entertained, as well as satisfied, their increasingly savvy clientele.
Once Prohibition was enacted, however, many of the country’s best bartenders jumped the pond to practice their craft in Europe, while a few adventurous and intrepid barmen pressed on in spite of the country having entered the dark ages of drink. Cocktails continued to be increasingly popular in house bars and speakeasies that persisted in spite of the ban, but because the quality of available liquor could range from barely palatable bathtub gin to foul-tasting bootleg spirits, they sometimes relied on heavily flavored additions such as juices, herbs, sweeteners and syrups to help mask the less-than-ideal taste of the base spirits.
By the time the 18th Amendment was repealed, much of the cocktail and craft knowledge that dominated the scene from pre-Prohibition until its repeal was lost. Many of the pre-Prohibition barmen had passed away by this time, taking their recipes to the grave with them, or had forgotten the trade and moved on to other vocations. The myriad of legal bars that sprouted up quickly filled with Americans who were thirsty for a legal cocktail, but most bartenders lacked the skills and techniques present before the ban.
Additionally, a vast number of Americans’ only experience with alcohol was in the speakeasies, so they knew nothing of the quality cocktails of the past—only cheap spirits with a splash of juice. This brain drain in the cocktail world resulted in a country full of bad bartenders serving clients who didn’t know the difference between a well-made cocktail and a glass of jet fuel and bitters.
Thankfully, we’re experiencing another cocktail renaissance, with a renewed focus on quality and technique. Part of that renaissance has included a look back at Prohibition and pre-Prohibition cocktails. Bartenders and discerning imbibers alike have taken an interest in the tastes and techniques of old with an eye towards making them new again. Locally, establishments such as The Flying Squirrel, Beast & Barrel, The Bitter Alibi, TerraMae, and Bella Vita have taken this renewed interest to heart and have several Prohibition Era cocktails in their repertoire.
The following four classic cocktails are a mix of pre-Prohibition and Prohibition Era drinks. While easy enough to make at home, there’s nothing quite like watching a talented barkeep perform the classic cocktail rituals and techniques required to make these drinks just for you. Cheers!
The Sazerac’s origins go back to the mid 1800s. It was a very popular drink throughout Prohibition and has maintained that popularity to this day. This complexly flavored drink, made with four simple ingredients, is the official cocktail of New Orleans and a favorite among bartenders such as Randy Paulsen, bar manager for Bella Vita in Chattanooga. “The Sazerac is one of my absolute favorite cocktails.” Paulsen says, “It’s simple, elegant, and encompasses everything a drink should be.”
As you watch Paulsen create the cocktail, you’ll see rich tradition and ritual play out in the technique and the finished drink itself. Two Old Fashioned glasses are used, one to create the drink and one to serve it. The serving glass is chilled and coated with absinthe before the finished cocktail is transferred to it, then the rim of the serving glass is wiped with a fresh slice of orange peel, from which oils have been lit on fire for a brief second to caramelize. Theatrical and practical, these techniques produce a spectacular cocktail.
- 3 oz. Sazerac rye whiskey
- 3/4 oz. simple syrup
- 2-3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
- 1/4 oz. absinthe or less
- 1 slice fresh orange peel
Chill an Old Fashioned glass. Take a second Old Fashioned glass and add the Sazerac, simple syrup, and Peychaud’s. Add ice and stir until cold. Rinse or spray your chilled glass with a coating of absinthe and strain the rye, simple syrup and Peychaud’s into the absinthe-rinsed glass. Now we get to play with fire.
Cut a round, coin-shaped slice of orange peel at least 1-inch in diameter. Light a match and hold it a few inches above the cocktail. With the orange-colored side down, pinch and fold the orange peel sharply above the lit match. You’re wanting to press the oils out from the peel and let them flame up and caramelize slightly like a tiny flambé. Rub the flamed peel around the rim of the glass, then discard. Enjoy your Sazarac while spinning a little New Orleans Rhythm Kings on the Victrola.
The Last Word
The Last Word cocktail was created at the Detroit Athletic Club in the mid 1900s and has been a best-kept secret among bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts for decades. Tony Zablocki, local whiskey enthusiast, bartender and spirits manager for Imbibe Chattanooga is a huge fan of The Last Word. “My favorite cocktails are bold, complex, and balanced,” she says, “The gin and Chartreuse in The Last Word add an herbal/botanical element that plays well with the fruitiness coming from the lime and Luxardo.” The complex taste of this cocktail is accomplished with only four ingredients, but they come together in a way that is greater than the sum of their parts.
- 3/4 oz. high-quality gin
- 3/4 oz. green Chartreuse
- 3/4 oz. maraschino liqueur
- 3/4 oz. fresh lime juice
Shake ingredients with ice, strain into a martini or cocktail glass and party like it’s 1929.
The Bees Knees
This is the epitome of a Prohibition Era cocktail. Even the name conjures up mental images of a flapper ordering up this drink between Cab Calloway tunes at the Cotton Club. While the recipe may initially appear too sweet for most tastes, when it’s made properly with fresh ingredients and quality spirits, it’s actually quite balanced. The citrus keeps the honey from overpowering the other ingredients, allowing the gin to shine through perfectly.
- 2 oz. high quality gin
- 3/4 oz. honey syrup (combine equal parts honey and hot water, stir until dissolved)
- 1/2 oz. fresh lemon juice
- 1 lemon twist
Combine the gin, honey syrup, and lemon juice in a shaker with ice. Shake for 20 seconds and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with the lemon twist, then enjoy while cutting a rug to your favorite Jelly Roll Morton tune.
The Old Fashioned
While not created during the Prohibition era, the Old Fashioned was a very popular drink during that time. The original appeared sometime in the 1870s, when patrons who were eschewing the “modern” cocktails of that time would order an “old-fashioned drink.” The early incarnations were a simple concoction made with a brown spirit, typically whiskey, mixed with bitters, sugar and maybe a few drops of water and/or a twist of lemon or orange. During Prohibition, muddled fruit was often added to mask the flavors of sub-par hooch.
- 1 1/2 oz. bourbon or rye whiskey
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
- 1 sugar cube
- Few dashes plain water
Place sugar cube in Old Fashioned glass and saturate with bitters. Add a dash of plain water and muddle until dissolved. Fill the glass with ice cubes and add whiskey. Garnish with orange slice if you’re so inclined...and enjoy.