The Old Shelter

Dieselpunk Roaring Twenties. Sarah Zama's Author Blog

Archive for the category “Speakeasy Life”

Anything Goes into a Prohibition Era Cocktail

No one knows when cocktails were first invented, but we do know why they were: to make the taste of liquor bearable.

Sure we don’t have the exact date of the invention of cocktails, but it was sometimes between the XVIII and the XIX century, most likely in America. At that time the consumption of spirits in the US was very high, apparently because water was so unhealthy that drinking liquor was safer. Just a shame that the quality of liquor was so poor that it tasted pretty bad. That was why people started to add flavours to it, to mask the bad taste of the liquor. In the early 1800s cocktails were mixed with a base of spirits (whatever available), a bit of bitter, enough sugar to make it palatable and water (Not ice. Cocktail were unlikely to be chilled at that time).

But soon cocktail became so popular that mixing them turned into an art. At the end of the century, the most fashionable bars and restaurants employed professional bartenders mixing cocktails, people who had studied the art and were very particular about the row material they used. The quality of liquors had also improved over the century.

All of this came to an end with Prohibition.

After the Eighteen Amendment was passed, dealing in spirits became a hugely profitable business, one mostly ran by the underworld, for whom the higher the profit, the better. This means the quality of spirits dropped drastically.

During Prohibition these were the kind of spirits you would be likely be served:

  1. Denaturated alcohol, which was one of the very few exception to the prohibition to producing alcohol. The law permitted to produce this alcohol specifically for the industry and it was denaturated so to make it undrinkable, usually adding poisonous wood alcohol. Bootleggers would divert huge amount of this alcohol from stockhouses and transportation, renaturated it, diluted it, flavoured it with some juniper oil and sell it on the market for people to drink.
  2. Bathtub gin, Moonshine, any home-made spirits. The law permitted to produce a little amount of alcohol for personal consumption. This also became a huge profit for the underworld and a small extra income for thousands of families. People would distil spirits in their homes and then sell them to bootleggers. The quality of this kind of liquor was anything but good, because seldom people really knew how to do it. Corks would often pop out or the bottles would explode before the content was mature enough to be drinkable and even when the process was completed, you then had a mud-brown, foul smelling, horribly tasting liquid as a result.
  3. Smuggled liquor, which came mostly from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and some all the way from Europe. This was quality liquor, but because bootleggers tried to make the most money out of it, what ended up on the market was a hugely diluted version. What little did get on the market intact cost a fortune.

So most of spirits available during Prohibition were at best undrinkable and this is the reason why cocktails became even more popular. Adding juices, sugar, bitters, then diluting with ice was a way to just get the thing drinkable. But because the whole business of illegal drinking was so huge and because most of the places where you could drink alcohol just wanted to profit the most from it, the quality of cocktail sank. Not only was the liquor used of very poor quality, so were also all the other ingredients. Besides, people didn’t drink to savour a cocktail, they drank to get as drunk as possible.

So yes, a lot of cocktails we drink today were born during Prohibition, but what people drank at that time was a far cry in terms of quality to what we are used today.



Okrent, Daniel, Last Call. The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Scribner, New York, 2010
Kobler, John, Ardent Spirits. The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Putnam, New York, 1973
Hess, Robert, The Essential Bartender’s Guide. Mud Puddle Books, New York, 2008



The Cocktail Book

One morsel review: Anastatic reproduztion of a 1926 book, this is a collection of recipes of cocktails popular in the Twenties. Fun to own.

The Cocktail Book

A Sideboard Manual for Gentlemen

Ross Bolton

Genre: Recipes Book
This book collects 172 recipes of well known – as well as less so – cocktails, divided into categories, if a bit arbitrary (one category, for example, is “Some recent favourites”). There’s also a section for non-alcoholic drinks.

I love old books, so I love anastatic reproductions too. Granted, an anastatic copy isn’t the real thing, but it’s good enough, and they still have that feeling of old, because the copy also reproduces the mars and imperfections of the original. Anastatic copies aren’t perfect. Also on this one, the characters are sometimes blurred, sometimes even unreadable, but I think this is the charm of this kind of publication.

This book was originally published in London in 1926, and by today’s standards is a funny book. It starts off with a very unlikely story of how the word ‘cocktails’ was born, but the story is told with such amusement it’s hard to say whether the author is being serious about it. It is fun to read, that’s for sure.

The book then just lists the recipes of the cocktails. For every cocktail, a list of ingredients and very brief directions are provided. And that’s it. No comment, no advice, no pictures. It doesn’t really look like a recipes book how we know it today.
Still it is interesting because of the reference. If a cocktail is in this book, you’ll know it was around in the Twenties. And as anyone doing a research will know, sometimes finding out whether something was around at a particular time it’s the hardest part.

At the back of the book, there are some tips on how to properly handle a dinner, as far as alcohol is concerned.

So, I may have been a bit disappointed, because there is very little in here other than the recipes, and I was hoping for some more piece of information, but I still find it useful and love to own it.

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