The Cocktails of Prohibition
“The Noble Experiment” began on January 17th, 1920 exactly one year after the 18th Amendment had been ratified by congress. This amendment (the only amendment to be repealed from the constitution) prohibited the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” as well as the “importation thereof into” the United States. All of this didn’t stop the residents of this great country from drinking, it simply changed how they did.
Cocktails & Prohibition
Prohibition didn’t invent the cocktail, as many will try to tell you. Cocktail culture and cocktails themselves had been popular for a while and had taken off in earnest in the middle of the 19th century. Cocktails were popularized as ice boomed in popularity and availability. However, beer was still the most popular beverage across the country pre-prohibition.
Once the 18th Amendment came into force beer fell out of favor, mainly due to variations in the supply chain between liquor and beer. It was much quicker, easier, and more discreet to produce and transport bootleg liquor than bootleg beer. Simple math one bottle of liquor could get 10 people drunk, whilst the same quantity of beer would struggle to make one person topple over.
The focus of prohibition era cocktails was not to forward the drinking world and cocktail culture. Many cocktails were designed to mask the flavors of the terrible alcohol being produced in bathtubs, basements and other hideaways around the country. This meant the addition of more mixers, as well as fresh fruits and herbs.
Not all drinking happened illicitly in the USA. Those that could afford to went to Mexico and Cuba for their libations, whilst those even better off escaped to Europe so that they could continue drinking. It is here, to these places, that the great bartenders of the pre-prohibition era escaped to continue practicing their craft.
Gin Rickey – This cocktail was originally made with bourbon, sparkling water, and fresh squeezed lime. During the period of prohibition the bourbon was replaced with gin, for it was a cleaner spirit and harder to smell on ones breath after one had been illicitly drinking.
Mint Julep – The mint julep was drunk before prohibition, however it really rose to popularity during this period because of the ingredients ability to mask the bad flavors of illicitly distilled liquor. Containing fresh mint, it was also a good cocktail for masking the smell of bourbon on ones breath.
The Sidecar – Present in some form before prohibition the sidecar was refine in the bars of Europe during the period of prohibition and drunk by many a visiting American. Made of simple and natural ingredients, this cocktail was built for the prohibition era.
The Margarita – Although all creation stories and myths related to the margarita come after the period of prohibition it is highly likely that this Mexican take on the Daisy family of cocktails (margarita is Spanish for daisy too) was created during prohibition to liquor up visiting Americans using a local ingredient variation of what they already knew.
Bacardi Cocktail – Bacardi was the name of the rum category during this period due to the popularity and dominance of this brand. Americans visiting Cuba during prohibition to escape for a few drinks would find Bacardi and rum in abundance in their drinks. Just a riff off the simple daiquiri the Bacardi Cocktail is ever enshrined in prohibition history.
Bee’s Knees – Many drinks from prohibition required the addition of fruit juices and sugar to combat the flavors of bootleg liquor. The Bee’s Knees differed from this and uses honey instead of sugar for its sweetness.
Many won’t condone “The Noble Experiment” as a success, however, it did propel cocktail culture to the forefront. By the time the 18th Amendment was repealed Americans were so used to drinking cocktails instead of beer and wine that the popularity of cocktails has not wavered since. Cocktail culture has continued to grow, and many say we’re in a cocktail renaissance. This revival reflects the period from the beginning of cocktail culture, prohibition, and the decade to follow it.