In the words of Will Rogers, “Prohibition is better than no liquor at all,” and the cowboy-humorist-newsman makes an interesting point. Far from being a time of temperance, the Prohibition era was the first real hey day of the cocktail in American culture. The legislative efforts of the Temperance Movement, notably the 18th amendment, effectively pushed alcohol out of the mainstream and to the fringes of society, where crime, questionable morality, and creativity always seem to find their proper home.
The creativity and innovation, which surrounds 20th century cocktail culture has a number of reasons for being. First off, by forcing the libationary pleasures of the day to go underground, Prohibition made drinking even sexier and exciting than it was in the 19th century. Speakeasies, cabarets, saloons, and taverns became hideaways that bred a sense of exclusivity and excitement, becoming the backdrop for an escapist mentality that was seeking to forget the traumas of a recent World War.
Going into one of these places was not only a chance to imbibe and partake in habits that had been formed over more than a century (before they were essentially halted cold turkey—never a good idea), but also when one was in a speakeasy; one was both within and without common society. This is similar to the condition of the artist, who must simultaneously live within a given culture, and distance oneself from that culture in order to offer comment and outside perspective.
Is it any surprise, then, that the speakeasy became the breeding ground for swing music, modern art, innovation, and liberated sexuality? Creative minds seek one another out, and the speakeasy became the de facto meeting ground for the creative thinkers of the day.
Now, these creative minds needed the social fuel (perhaps, more appropriately, social lubricant) that could mimic and support their own originality. Barmen and Barwomen stepped up to the plate to fill this void, in a culture that was outwardly proper and constricted, and uniqueness and individuality were taboo.
They altered the classic spirit-sugar-bitters cocktail formula, adding garnishes like olives, cherries, citrus rinds, mint leaves, ginger, and other food that might otherwise be considered utterly disposable. They also used fruit juices, and sodas to mask the horrid taste of bootleg alcohols like the infamous “bath-tub gin.”
In effect, by making alcohol a DIY activity and product (“Next on HGTV… Hooch Hunters – Toilet Wine Edition”), Prohibition necessitated a more creative approach to blending flavor, aroma, and performance. These really are the three core elements of any good cocktail.
The fact that performance is as much a part of any good drink as the spirits and mixers is undeniable. I would wager that anyone reading this knows someone who brews their own beer, or takes great pride in the vast selection of their bar. That moment when the bartender hands you your drink and leans back to watch you take the first curious sip – that moment is as much a part of the drink as the liquid filling the coupe.
It is during Prohibition that American cocktail culture is so purposefully ritualized for the first time. There is no dearth of irony in the fact that we owe the Temperance Movement for the ritual, creativity, and all-inclusivity that the cocktail has today. So, thanks teetotalers of the 20th century. We really couldn’t have done it without you. Cheers.
Since the Prohibition Era, American cocktail culture has exploded. It seems like every restaurant has their twist on some classic cocktail. Even chain restaurants like T.G.I. Fridays have specialty drinks for God’s sake. The progression and innovation that stems from the 1920s is undeniable, and in the next Mise En Place post we will trace that progression to the state of the cocktail in the 21st century.
What are the new requirements to becoming a bartender? What tools, and methods are now commonplace? What the hell is a “mixologist?” Is there any way to tell where the Cocktail is headed next? I believe there is… but I will leave that until next time. Until then, “stay thirsty, my friends.” And don’t stop creating and performing the second uniquely American art (after Scrimshaw, of course).
In Good Food,