Prohibition Killed the Cocktail

by Rhett Williams

It is a common misconception that American Prohibition created the cocktail. I hear this working behind the bar, reading blog posts and books, and have even encountered it during historical walking tours. This inaccurate tale is usually told like so:

Once alcohol was criminalized, bathtub gin and watered-down, bootlegged spirits became the unavoidable drinks of choice. This booze was such poor quality that drinkers started to mask the flavours with juices, liqueurs, and herbs - the inception of what we know today as classic cocktails. There are such stories of specific drinks as well - the Southside, for example. In the 1920’s, Chicago was split into two zones (South and North) ruled by two different gangs (Al Capone in the south and Dean O’Banion in the north). The North Side Gang, being closer to Canada, cornered the market on bootlegged whisky, forcing the South Side Gang to rely more on the sale of bathtub gin. This gin tasted so awful, adding citrus and mint to it was the only way to make it palatable.

Unfortunately, almost none of this is true.

The mixed drink actually dates back hundreds of years before Prohibition in the form of punch, which constituted simply a large volume mixture of liquor or wine with fruits, juices, or dairy, and ice if it was handy. The “Cock-tail” as a singular drink (containing spirit, bitters, sugar, and water) dates to sometime in the 18th century, still almost 200 years earlier than the 18th Amendment. The “Golden Age of Cocktails,” the name given to the heyday of the saloon from about 1860-1919, saw the evolution of the single-serving punch and the original “Cock-tail.” This is essentially the true birth of what we know today as classic cocktails. Most of the popular, old drinks we still enjoy today come from this time period (Manhattan, Sazerac, Martini, Martinez, Negroni, Old Fashioned, and so on). 

So what exactly did Prohibition do to cocktail culture? It actually had the reverse effect of what many seem to think. American Prohibition, for all intents and purposes, destroyed classic bartending. It wiped recipes, techniques, and ingredients from existence. It took previously high-standards of drinking culture and flushed them down the proverbial toilet. It raised an entire generation on bad-quality liquor and trained them to expect nothing more (a tradition proudly carried through the 1970’s-90’s). 

Once alcohol was outlawed, many producers either went out of business, sold their remaining stock and evolved, or in the case of European companies, simply stopped supplying any product to the U.S. Many popular ingredients disappeared, only to be resurrected over the last ten years during the classic bartending revival (e.g. creme de violette, Boker’s bitters, Abbott’s bitters, amari, etc).

By the turn of the century, bartending techniques and tools were perfected, and the finest establishments and hotels had access to good-quality ice. During Prohibition, the only bars were speakeasies, hidden in back rooms and basements with no refrigeration, tools, or even bartenders most of the time, making cocktails next to impossible to actually make. (Keep in mind, no refrigeration meant no juice.) 

Bartenders, who were in the 19th century both respected and revered, either had to completely change careers (many became soda jerks) or flee to Europe to continue their craft. It is in Paris and London through the 1920’s and 30’s that bartending does continue its story, no thanks to anything that was happening in the U.S.

After the repeal in 1933, bartending returned slowly but (arguably) never to the same level of quality and seemingly without the same sense of history. With the improvement of technology bringing us the blender, ice machines, and column stills to mass-produce liquor, the focus on profit margin and bad taste became too much to bear by the 1950’s, and classic cocktails were all but forgotten. (Another misconception is that the 50’s and 60’s were great eras for the cocktail, when in fact they were the decades when it finally withered away and passed quietly in the night while old purists watched in sorrow.)

So as you can see, we can blame Prohibition for killing the cocktail, not creating it. Today, as so many bars are returning bartending to its 19th century form, where do we find inspiration and technique? Stay tuned...

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