Making speakeasy cocktails and toasting the end of Prohibition

December 03, 2003|By Rob Kasper

THIS WEEK marks the 70th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition, so to celebrate I recently mixed up a batch of speakeasy cocktails.

The recipes for concoctions called Horse's Neck, Flu Cocktail and Rock and Rye came from Manhattan Oases, a book originally published in 1932 that was written and illustrated by Al Hirschfeld, the noted theatrical caricaturist who died in January at the age of 99.

As a young man about town, Hirschfeld toured dozens of Manhattan's speakeasies, sketched the scenes of 36 in this guide, recorded recipes for the bartenders' favorite cocktails and wrote pungent observations of the watering holes.

Friday evening in a New York joint at 57 E. 54th St., once known as Bill's Bar in its speakeasy days, there will be a party celebrating the reissuance of the book, now called The Speakeasies of 1932 (Glenn Young Books/Applause, $26.95). The shindig is set to begin at 5:32 p.m., the exact time 70 years ago that liquor became legal again in the United States, after a 13-year hiatus.

Assisting me in my ministrations the other night was Neil A. Grauer, a friend and writer who not only is an accomplished mixologist but who also knew Hirschfeld and is well-acquainted with the lore of Prohibition.

As I made a Horse's Neck - putting a spiral-cut lemon rind into a tumbler, stirring in a teaspoon of sugar, a shot of gin, a couple of cubes of ice and a dose of ginger ale - Grauer told me various historical footnotes about the period from 1920 to 1933 when booze was banned.

For instance, he said that one reason these speakeasy cocktails contained so much sugar and fruit was that the bartenders of the time were compensating for bad booze.

During Prohibition, there was some good liquor smuggled in from Canada and Mexico or loaded off of "rum runner" boats stationed in international ocean waters just beyond U.S. territorial reach, he said.

But there was also plenty of hooch that was barely drinkable. Industrial alcohol was used in various manufacturing processes and still legally produced during Prohibition. To prevent people from drinking it, the government denatured it by adding things that would make it unfit to consume, including soap or even sulfuric acid.

Bogus manufacturing businesses were set up to obtain denatured industrial alcohol fraudulently then resell it to bootleggers who tried to make it drinkable. Deaths from lousy liquor in 1925 and 1926, according to a report issued by the New York state medical examiner's office, outnumbered deaths from automobile accidents and household gas poisoning combined.

Grauer told me that Hirschfeld usually avoided the hard stuff at speakeasies and drank beer instead. In his book, he wrote that the beer was also of uneven quality and was usually "needled" or injected with a syringe filled with extra alcohol. "Sorry boys, bad barrel today," was the excuse offered by a speakeasy bartender for sour suds, he wrote.

The speakeasy cocktails I made with modern, high-quality hooch not only didn't blind anybody, some of them tasted pretty good. The Horse's Neck was refreshing, and the Flu Cocktail, a mixture of Jamaica ginger, lemon juice, grenadine, brandy and rye, could make someone under the weather forget his symptoms.

I avoided, however, the recipe for Smoke, a near-lethal libation that called for melting two cans of Sterno, then soaking up the poisons in the mixture by tossing pieces of a cardboard shoe box into the brew, and adding a pinch of tobacco for color.

In New York, according to Hirschfeld, getting admitted to a speakeasy sometimes required showing a membership card or mumbling the password, buzz. Grauer told me that some New York speakeasies, such as a joint once known as Jack and Charlie's and now called 21 Club, had elaborate systems to foil federal agents.

Once, he said, when revenuers were searching the establishment trying to find the bar, James J. Walker, then mayor of New York, sat safely behind the movable brick wall that disguised the entrance to the speakeasy.

Baltimore never developed the barricaded speakeasies found in New York and other Prohibition cities, according to Robert J. Brugger, author of Maryland: A Middle Temperament, 1634 --1980 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996 reprint).

Led by Gov. Albert C. Ritchie, the mood in Maryland was adamantly wet, Brugger told me. "The symbol for wetness was a red crab," he said, adding that during Prohibition, red crabs decorated restaurant windows throughout the city. Another clue to Maryland imbibers, according to Brugger, was a sign advertising "Sea Food." That often meant that food was served in the front of the house, and liquor was poured in back.

Because Maryland refused to establish the machinery necessary to enforce Prohibition, the task of catching bootleggers fell to federal agents. Mostly the feds were overwhelmed, but they did catch at least one Baltimore merchant, Harry Martick.

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