Ask the bartender: How did the cocktail culture survive Prohibition?

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Sean Kenyon knows how to pour out both drinks and advice. A third-generation bar man with almost 25 years behind the bar, he is a student of cocktail history, a United States Bartenders Guild-certified Spirits Professional and a BAR Ready graduate of the prestigious Beverage Alcohol Resource Program. You can find him behind the bar at Squeaky Bean -- and here every week, where he'll talk about current cocktail culture (including our contest to create a Colorado cocktail) and answer your questions. But this week, he has something to celebrate:

December 5 marks the 77th anniversary of the end of Prohibition.

On January 16, 1920, the National Prohibition Act -- the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution -- became law, prohibiting the production, sale and transport of "intoxicating liquors."

A couple of months earlier, President Woodrow Wilson (who was known to be fond of a tipple or two) had vetoed the act, but both houses of Congress quickly voted to override the veto. And so our country's vibrant cocktail culture came to a screeching halt. Five hundred and seven distilleries, 1,217 breweries and 180,000 bars had to shut down. Famous bartenders like Harry Craddock of New York City's famed Hoffman House bar left for Great Britain, Europe, Cuba and the Caribbean islands, spreading the vast knowledge of American bartending around the world.

Here in the United States, most bartenders found other work, and the development of our uniquely American craft ceased. This was the era of the Boardwalk Empire, bathtub gin, bootlegging and gangsters. The quality of spirits available to the common man was suspect at best during the fourteen long years without legal booze.

On December 5, 1933, the 21st amendment to the Constitution officlally repealed Prohibition, and a nation of drinkers rejoiced. But where were the great cocktails?

Most of the great bartenders were out of the business -- or out of the country. And there was little good whiskey; distilleries needed time to catch up and age their spirits. So Americans who were drinking mainly bourbon and rye before the "noble experiment" turned to other spirits. Canadian Whisky, a lighter blended style of whisky (sans "e"), grabbed hold of the whiskey market. Blended Scotch also got its foot in the door. But other spirits, such as tequila and rum, also surged in popularity.

Because of our proximity to the Caribbean, rum had been available to many during Prohibition. Coming out of the dreary 1920s, our country had a taste for the exotic -- and rum obliged. In 1934, Ernest Beaumont-Gantt, aka Donn Beach (creator of the Zombie), opened Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood. That same year, Victor Bergeron, aka Trader Vic (creator of the Mai Tai), opened a bar called Hinky-Dink's in Emeryville, California. At first, Bergeron's new joint was just a normal watering hole. But after research trips to Louisiana, Cuba and Hollywood, he changed his bar's theme to the South Pacific and its name to Trader Vic's. Thus the Tiki craze was born, and it would flourish into the 1950s.

So, as miserable as fourteen years without booze would seem, there were things to be thankful for. Prohibition opened our eyes (and livers) to new spirits and exotic cocktails.

Today, the craft of bartending has finally returned to form, and the current class of passionate bartenders is using everything from pre-Prohibition styles to Tiki to molecular mixology to create the finest potent potables for your tippling pleasure. This Sunday, December 5, is the 77th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition -- a day to celebrate the craft of bartending and legally consume your favorite spirit.

I'll be out on a Repeal Day bar crawl; feel free to join me. Check back later for my itinerary.

Cheers!

Have a question for Sean Kenyon? E-mail bartender@westword.com.

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