38.2 Prohibition cocktail

28 Oct

The only good prohibtion drink is water.

— W.L. George, “Hail Columbia! Parthian Shots”, Harper’s Monthly Magazine, vol. 142 (May 1921), pp. 774-88 (p. 786).

The phrase “prohibition cocktail” and “prohibition drink” could mean two things in the early twentieth century. To dry mouths in dry counties, desperate for a “kick”, it was the often lethal product of amateur experiments in chemical engineering. Take this example from pre-Volstead Massachussets:

Thirsty residents of prohibition Brockton have discovered a chemical cocktail which takes the place of the old-fashioned “stretch”, a mixture of alcohol and water which has been consumed with dire results. They have found that water poured into spirits of camphor precipitates the camphor and leaves a chemical cocktail which has a flavour not unlike that of a mint julep.

Arraigned in the Taunton Police Court, William Bavot told of his experiences: “I drank four of these cocktails, your honor, and was on my way home, when I heard a noise overhead. I looked up and saw a herd of elephants flying on pink wings. They alighted on the telegraph wires over me and began to sway back and forth. The leader had hears of baby-blue color with pink patches and only one eye. The leader flapped his ears, and the band began to dance on the wires. I was so fearful that they would fall on me that I began to perspire, and then I lost consciousness. When I came to I was in the police station. Never again.”

— “Effect of New Cocktail”, Washington Post (20 June 1908), p. 6.

After the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, that sort of deadly drink—often consisting of methanol laced with artificial flavouring and coloring so that it resembled, say, whiskey or gin—became increasingly prevalent. Even if it didn’t kill you, it was hard to stomach. “There are two kinds of Prohibition cocktail,” noted Geoffrey Kerr in Vanity Fair, “the gin and lemon variety, which tastes like sulphuric acid; and what is supposed to be a dry martini, which tastes like a concentrated solution of quinine. Either kind should be regarded as purely medicinal and swallowed at one gulp” (Vanity Fair, vol. 27: 4 (February 1927), pp. 67, 110). In New York, according to the Chicago Daily Tribune, the “synthetic mixed drink” was “a nauseating draft, a melancholy, depressing drink that smells like the back room of an apothecary’s shop”. So revolting, in fact, that, according to one bootlegger, dedicated topers were turning their backs on cocktails:

“The saddest epitaph on the tombstone of Bacchus,” he said, “is that the dry Martini, the Manhattan, and the Bronx, which a few years ago were the instruments of conviviality, have now become the agents of sobriety! What a fall. Synthetic stuff has done it. The cocktail as now served on Broadway discourages drinking. No wonder the flappers and their mammas and papas are going in for hard likker straight. It’s safety first.”

— Arthur Evans, “1923 Cocktail Driving Gotham to Hard Likker”, Chicago Daily Tribune (12 December 1923), p. 12.

Sometimes, though, what was sold as booze (under the counter, of course) had no effect at all. “Manhattan and Martini Prohibition cocktails,” reported the Daily News after analysing the contents of some illicitly obtained bottles, were so innocuous that they “could be used for soothing syrup for children” (“Will Prohibition Put an End to Drunkenness?”, Daily News, 29 October 1919; repr. in Mixer and Server, vol. 28: 12 [15 December 1919], pp. 44-5 [p. 44]). In fact, that’s often precisely what it was.

“Prohibition cocktail” had a second meaning: it was another name for a temperance drink, a mixed but still legal beverage. Even before the Volstead Act went into force the term was often used mockingly:

The Bone Dry Room at the Hotel Majestic will be opened by Copeland Townsend as a “training room” for Prohibition, to let people see how they like the idea of sitting around playing checkers and drinking soft stuff.

Here are some suggestions of the menu: Water Wagon Phizz, Aris Ale, Prohibition  Cocktail, Dry Martinette, The Old Oaken Bucket, Automobile Cobbler, Aereoplane Dip and Orange Fizzade. The prices run from 25 to 60 cents.

“There will be a lot of places of this sort if Prohibition becomes a fact,” said Mr. Townsend. “I am merely taking time by the forelock and opening the first Bone Dry Room.”

— “Hotel’s Bone Dry Room”, New York Hotel Record, vol. 17:14 (25 March 1919). p. 8.

When a character in a contemporary minstrel show asks what a “prohibition cocktail” is and receives the reply: “A prohibition cocktail is a glass of milk with a prune in it” (John E. Lawrence, Dixie Minstrel First Part [Chicago: Denison, 1924], p. 25), his interlocutor is voicing a common opinion, at least among the bibulous. The very notion of a non-alcoholic “cocktail” was either nonsensical or grimly, healthily disgusting.

But some among the Dry Ascendancy saw an opportunity. Soda fountain operators, as we’ve mentioned before, were quickest to capitalize on the new status quo and earned fat profits with formulas such as this: “Prohibition Cocktail. Pour into a warmed mug ½ ounce of mint syrup, ½ teaspoonful of tincture of ginger, ½ ounce of fine quality molasses, and a dash of extract of peppermint. Fill with water” (“The Soda Fountain”, Confectioners’ and Bakers’ Gazette, vol. 40, no. 456 [10 September 1919], p. 22). And several years into the Noble Experiment Roxana B. Doran, wife of James M. Doran, the Commissioner of Industrial Alcohol, earned fleeting fame with the publication of Prohibition Punches (Philadelphia: Dorrance, 1930), the result of a nationwide campaign to popularise fruit-juice drinks. Her own recipe for “1930 Cocktail” was composed of grapefruit juice, pineapple jucie, limes and ginger ale, garnished with fruit and a spring of mint (“Mrs Doran Introduces New Cocktail at Dinner”, Baltimore Sun [2 January 1930], p. 2).

So that’s the background to Harry Craddock’s cheekily named “Prohibition Cocktail” in the Savoy Cocktail Book. This one, at least if enjoyed outside the US, was legal, delivered a kick and actually tasted nice. It was everything other prohibition cocktails were not. Even more cheekily, it’s almost exactly the same as Craddock’s Charlie Lindbergh cocktail: the sole difference is that this recipe calls for a single dash of apricot brandy, not two (the Lindbergh also specifically calls for the proprietary brandy Pricota):

½  Plymouth Gin

½  Kina Lillet

2 Dashes Orange Juice

1 Dash Apricot Brandy

Squeeze lemon peel on top.

From: “Advertisements You Have Never Seen”, Life, vol. 70 (25 October 1917), p. 676.

3 Responses to “38.2 Prohibition cocktail”

  1. Colette at 8:59 pm #

    I just had a martini made with co-op own-brand gin and vermouth, which I suspect was little more than ‘methanol laced with flavouring.’

  2. Greg Moore at 9:26 pm #

    That’s only acceptable if, at the time, you were wearing a flapper dress, a cloche hat and dancing the Charleston.

    You don’t have to settle for the Co-op, y’know. Luvian’s stocks this: http://yetanothergin.co.uk/index.php/reviews/gin-reviews/the-botanist-islay-dry-gin

  3. Colette at 11:15 pm #

    Sadly not. I was wearing comfies and watching ‘Thor’. Oooh, the glamour. Indeed it was more ‘desperation’ than ‘prohibition’. Good gin tip though- we’ve actually part-invested in a barrel of their whisky, but i had no idea they did gin.

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