Prohibition Killed the Cocktail
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 essentially 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…
Lost & Found: The Seelbach Cocktail
Every hotel, bar, or restaurant used to have a signature drink. In fact, for a few hundred years from the peak of punch through the heyday of plain and fancy drinks in the mid 19th century, all alcoholic beverages were named after either their ingredients or the establishment that created them. Some famous examples include the Manhattan, Brooklyn, Clover Club, Pegu Club, and Sazerac. One of the many sad consequences of U.S. Prohibition was that any business relying on selling alcohol had to be shut down, and often with it went an interesting history and a signature drink.
The Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, is a great example. Built in 1905 by the Seelbach brothers, this hotel was an attempt to recreate the beauty and decadence of western Europe. Located within was The Rathskeller, a 400-seat capacity nightspot whose menu claimed that “every essential, artistic detail is a reproduction of the underground drinking and council hall of one of the famous castles on the Rhine.” Most impressively, this was one of the very first air-conditioned rooms ever built, requiring forty tons of steam-produced refrigeration every twenty-four hours to maintain at least a ten degree cooler temperature than the hot Kentucky air outside.
Theatre-goers and socialites spent evenings here, likely enjoying the signature cocktail, The Seelbach – a light, spicy mixture of bourbon, Cointreau, Champagne, and a hefty dose of both Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters. Though unconfirmed (as most of these stories are), the tale of its inception involves a bartender opening a foaming bottle of Champagne and grabbing a nearby customer’s Manhattan to catch the spill. This patron enjoyed the combination and a new drink was born.
Most famously, the Seelbach Hotel was frequented by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who at the time was writing “The Great Gatsby,” and supposedly based some of the novel on his experience there. The female lead, Daisy Buchanan, was from Louisville, so perhaps he found inspiration in a particular guest? Perhaps for Gatsby as well?
Once the 18th Amendment was passed, the bars inside were closed and The Rathskeller became simply an extended dining room. Part of this space was even leased to Walgreen Drugs. The Seelbach Cocktail, now illegal, was forgotten.
In the 1930’s a new bar was opened that offered its own theatre and musical entertainment, and though many ownership and design changes have occurred over the last eighty years, the Seelbach still stands and parts of the original Rathskeller designs still remain. The story goes that in 1995 when ownership was undergoing another renovation of the hotel, a manager discovered (I like to think it was physically found in the basement) a recipe for the Seelbach Cocktail and again made it the house drink, though the specifics were guarded. Thanks to Gary Regan, who convinced the Seelbach Hotel to allow the recipe to be published in his “New Classic Cocktails” book, we can all share in the drink’s history and unique flavour.
At Pourhouse, we’ve altered the recipe slightly to suit our tastes, so come try our version and tip your glass to Fitzgerald, Gatsby, forgotten cocktails, and air conditioning.
Five Hundred Words on Wine
What is going on in our cellar lately? Admittedly not much has changed in our wine program since the last time anything was written about it, but recently things have been shuffling, and there are a few fun steps coming up in the dance: some things worthy of blog.
First point of note is that our North American producer focus, our “celebrate your neighbor and what they’re growing” philosophy is getting easier and more fun. With nine microbreweries opened last year, and thirteen more scheduled this year, the local beer scene is on fire. Depending on how you count, we are just shy of 300 BC vineyards now too, so there is a lot more to choose from and a lot closer to home. When we do finally get around to things, we laid back British Columbians do them with a whole, passionate heart. While our total wine production on the global scale will only ever amount to a drop in the bucket, BC has started to come into its own, saying: “Hey, let’s not worry about making a bigger drop, but make it our own and one of the best damn drops in that bucket!”
Something I’ve noticed in meeting and tasting with BC producers lately is that big and small, there are a lot of viticulturists out there committed to making the best possible wine they can in a more natural way. With the advent of some very advanced wine laboratories, a winemaker can browse from dozens of different yeast strains, powdered tannins, acidifiers, and a whole host of other things I’m hardly even qualified to think about, let alone speak to. I’m not saying that after careful Pinot Noir clone selection a winemaker shouldn’t be just as choosy when it comes to what yeast to use for it. What I am saying though, is that the temptation is there to produce more juice per ton, and to make up for time not spent in the vineyard with a barrage of chemical vinification fix-its; it takes a real strength to spend the required care and time on the viticultural aspect instead.
What I’m seeing (and tasting) these days, are wines being made just so – “hands-on” farming in the vineyard, and “hands-off” tweaking in the cellar. Careful attention to irrigation, sustainable practices, vine training and pruning, canopy management, natural fermentation, and a broad view of what’s best for the land, the environment, their future, and of course, their wine. It’s making for some very interesting drinking, and some tough decisions too (poor me!). What I’m swirling in my glass are wines not with an exact end result in mind, but an honest expression of their own unique terroir, and the hard work gone into allowing that expression to bloom. Even more exciting is the number of these wines that are not only authentic and interesting, but really good too. It’s enough to warrant a new wine list.
Over the coming weeks and months, I will be making adjustments to our wine list, and sharing my ideas and reasons here. Check back for updates, bin ends, and a few one-offs too.