Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Happy Birthday, Prohibition: a cocktail in your honour



One hundred years ago today Prohibition passed into US Federal law, when the 18th Amendment was ratified by the 36th state.*

It was intended to improve the health and morals of the nation, but it had some unintended consequences. Some sources say that it did reduce alcohol consumption, while others suggest consumption initially went down but after a few years rose to higher than pre-Prohibition levels. Certainly in cities the number of places you could get a drink sky-rocketed as drinking went underground. This playful map below from 1932 suggests there were 500 speakeasies in Harlem alone. There must have been a clientele for all these speaks: a lot of ordinary people weren’t keen to give up booze but now these previously law-abiding citizens were declared to be criminals, creating a new flexible morality. (In fact some pro-Prohibition activists later swapped sides and campaigned to have it abolished, on the grounds that it had created a generation with no respect for the law.) Drinking had previously been concentrated in saloons, places where respectable women did not venture; but Prohibition suddenly meant that everyone slipping into an illegal drinking den was on an even moral footing, and for the first time it became acceptable for women to drink in public. This was the age of the flapper.



Previously the government had derived significant revenue from taxing booze sales: now that revenue passed into the hands of organised criminals, some of them soldiers returning from WWI with gun skills but little prospect of work, who set up sophisticated smuggling operations to satisfy demand. The old saloons had been hotbeds of political intrigue and moralists hoped Prohibition would clean things up, but bootleggers like Al Capone made so much money they could buy whole cities: at his peak Capone had the Chicago mayor and most of the police on his payroll. In Chicago the fashionable middle classes bragged about the gangsters they knew.

Prohibition affected the wider world too, as out-of-work American bartenders went abroad to seek employment. Although cocktails had been around through the 19th century this migration did much to spread the fashion for mixed drinks—not least because fashionable and wealthy Americans could travel overseas to find a legal snifter (and even the not-so-wealthy could make it to Havana, where a host of new cocktails were developed to cater for them). In London hotels and clubs now began having an “American bar” serving cocktails. Every ocean liner had to have its own signature concoction.

One of these expats was Harry Craddock. In fact he’d been born in Britain, but went to train as a bartender in the US and became a citizen. He claimed to have shaken the last cocktail before Prohibition came into force, then promptly sailed back to Blighty where he set up at the Savoy Hotel in London. He is best known for penning The Savoy Cocktail Book (1930), which is still in print and a useful source.

Harry Craddock


One of his creations is the Prohibition Cocktail. There is no record of how it came to be created—and it may have been a spur-of-the-moment thing in response to a request, as it is almost identical to another of his cocktails, the Charlie Lindbergh—but he must have been cocking a snook at the Noble Experiment, and possibly at the “Prohibition cocktails” being touted on the other side of the ocean. Some of these were attempts to get drinkers enjoying fruit-juice based blends (what I guess we would call “mocktails” today), while others were synthesised to taste like the Martinis and Manhattans that drinkers used to enjoy—apparently with invariably foul results.**

Harry’s Prohibition Cocktail is a proper cocktail, and moreover a very tasty drink, so on this day it seems apt to revisit it. His recipe in The Savoy Cocktail Book is:

½ Plymouth Gin
½ Kina Lillet
2 Dashes Orange Juice
1 Dash Apricot Brandy
Shake well and strain into a cocktail glass. Squeeze lemon peel on top.

As we have observed before, Kina Lillet is no longer made. Lillet themselves would have you believe that modern Lillet Blanc is a suitable substitute but it is generally considered that Kina Lillet was more bitter (its name presumably derived from quinine-laden cinchona bark). I find that Cocchi Americano is a good substitute—in the sense that if you follow vintage recipes you end up with something that looks and tastes right. (For example, a Corpse Reviver No.2 made with Lillet Blanc is just too sweet and orange-flavoured, so you end up adding more gin and less Cointreau to try and get it balanced.) If you can’t find that you could try Lillet Blanc plus some bitters. China Martini is another good substitute but is harder to find that Cocchi Americano. See DBS’s post on his search for the Vesper Martini and various substitutes for Kina Lillet. Apricot brandy seems to be getting easier to acquire: most larger supermarkets near me stock it these days.

I find that this makes a good modern version, though you may need to play around with the proportions depending on what gin you use or whether your OJ is freshly squeezed or from a carton:

35 ml gin
35 ml Cocchi Americano
10 ml orange juice
5 ml apricot brandy

Get the balance right and it has sweetness and bitterness, juniper backbone from the gin and distinct notes or orange and apricot.

Happy birthday, Prohibition. Here’s mud in your eye!

* Nebraska, as it happens, though some states were already operating Prohibition at a state level. The amendment stipulated that the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol would be banned from one year later, 17th January 1920. The actual details of what counted as an alcoholic beverage and what exemptions there might be were sorted out in the Volstead Act later in 1919.

** For more on Prohibition Cocktails see Greg Moore’s scholarly post on his Cocktail101 blog.

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