How Prohibition Changed the Cocktail

It’s hard to believe there was a time when it was illegal to produce, sell and ship alcohol. Then again, in some places Prohibition might well have never been repealed. I lived in a dry county (Pulaski) myself, where I had to drive 50 miles to buy wine. The inhumanity! My delight at moving to Louisville, a block from Old Town Liquor, must have been something like the elation tipplers felt on Dec. 5, 1933, when the experiment known as Prohibition was repealed.

Prohibition may have made it difficult for those who liked to step out to the store for a pint of their favorite drink, but it also created a cocktail renaissance of sorts.  

“Some people say Prohibition was the greatest thing to happen to liquor,” says Colin Blake, creative director at Louisville’s Distilled Spirits Epicenter. “After Prohibition, everything changed.” 

People developed a taste for sweet drinks during the years that sugar and fruit juice was added to home distilled spirits. Evidently, bathtub gin didn’t exactly taste good. We see that legacy now in contemporary cocktails like the lemon drop and cosmopolitan, as well as in the mid-century explosion of Tiki bar culture, when returning WWII soldiers helped exotic rum drinks, now cocktail bar staples, cross over into the mainstream. 

By the way, if you think—like I did—that people were brewing up tubs full of spirits, that’s not the case. People filled jugs with neutral grain spirits they sourced from local stills or Canada, according to Blake, and topped them off with water. The bathtub was merely the only spigot tall enough to fit the jug. (Besides, a bathtub full of juniper-scented liquor would’ve been a dead giveaway that something nefarious was going on.)

To make these home concoctions palatable, the would-be mixologists of the time created punches heavy on sugar and fruit. At speakeasies around the country folks imbibed in sweet creations still drawing fans today.

“They’re so fruity and delicious,” Blake says of Prohibition-era punches.  

At one point, some 30,000 speakeasies served drinks in New York City alone, Blake says. And plenty of stills fueled the appetite for spirits. I wondered how people knew how to distill liquor back then—it’s not as if they could watch a YouTube video to learn. But working on the still was just another farm chore from our nation’s earliest days, Blake says. In fact, some 10,000 distilleries dotted the original 13 colonies.

Today the Epicenter carries on the tradition with their Greasemonkey Distillery. Enthusiasts who would like to learn more about the spirits of Prohibition can come to the center’s Moonshine University. A two-hour class on Repeal Day, December 5, from 6-8 p.m. will focus on bourbon, gin and cocktails of the era. The class is $100.

For those who’d rather celebrate than take a history and science lesson, local bars offer a chance to toast the end of Prohibition.

December 3. Housed in a former bourbon distillery, the St. Charles Exchange (113 S. 7th St.) will host a Repeal Day Party from 5-7 p.m. Period attire is encouraged. They’ll feature a Prohibition-era cocktail, the Opera—with a twist. It’s aged for about a month in a bourbon barrel from Bluegrass Barrels. The drink is an experiment, as it’s the first time beverage director Colin Shearn has aged a cocktail. He’s optimistic though. “It was good going in!” he says. The drink features gin, Dubonnet and maraschino liqueur.  

December 5. At Proof on Main (702 West Main St.), bartenders will create a one-day-only special list of classic cocktails inspired by the Speakeasy era. Costumes are encouraged and mustaches will be provided.  A soundtrack of Twenties and Thirties music will frame the mood. Festivities begin at 4 p.m.

December 5. Rye (900 E. Market St.) will serve up classic cocktails side-by-side with their own take on the original so guests can compare the two.

 

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