Thanks to many temperance unions and progressive political reformers determined to clean up a morally deprived society, the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified on January 17th, 1920. The production and sale of alcoholic beverages became illegal and breweries, wineries, and distilleries all over the country went bankrupt and closed. This was the beginning of Prohibition in the United States. During this time, industrial alcohol was the only legally produced alcohol. To prevent it from being easily converted into drinking alcohol, it became a requirement that industrial alcohol be contaminated with chemicals that would make it more difficult to convert.
If history shows us anything it’s that people are resilient. Alcohol consumption and related crimes decreased for a while, but pretty soon bootleggers began stealing industrial alcohol, neutralizing it, and selling it wherever they could. Between neutralizing industrial alcohol and the illegal distilling of moonshine there was enough alcohol to supply more than 50,000 speakeasies in New York alone. This alcohol wasn’t exactly palatable though; Not just from the treatments to make it drinkable, but all the unsanitary “recipes” they used to make it taste like whiskey, gin, and scotch.
How do you feel about dead rats soaking in that bottle of whiskey you like so much? Yes, that was the secret recipe to getting industrial alcohol to taste like whiskey. These pseudo-spirits were foul and required mixing to mask the defects. Cocktails during this time mostly consisted of a single spirit, juice or soda, and sugar. Gin was the most popular because it was easy to make and easy to mix. Quick and easy cocktails were also essential because people frequenting these establishments never knew when a raid was going to happen. Making cocktails in a short amount of time was necessary to get more drinks in the body. This habit of dinking a lot in a short time frame was probably the greatest impact prohibition had on mixology.
While most people associate speakeasies with dim lit rooms, jazz music, and glasses of creative bootleg-infused cocktails, they are actually combining the image of Prohibition with the 1920’s of Europe. This infamous period isn’t to thank for elaborate cocktails and fresh ingredients in the United States. That was pre-prohibition mixology. Instead, Prohibition gave rise to still popular favorites like Whiskey Soda and Vodka Cranberry. Once more, it gave rise to the lasting popularity of drinking a lot of alcohol in a short period of time. Does this sound familiar? Maybe bringing back memories of your first house party? Or all those nights at clubs being over charged for multiple Jack & Cokes while you danced or watched other people dance? Great times! This is what prohibition paved the way to.
While the 1920’s was a source for many great cocktails like the Bees Knees, Side Car, and French 75, Prohibition was the great source of cheap liquor and hangovers. One thing is for certain… Prohibition and the 1920’s were a crazy and wild time that lead to many changes in both mixology and the world. And, while definitely upgraded concepts, prohibition inspires many bartenders the world over to craft new cocktails!