So what has the Prohibition Era got to do with gin?
Well, quite a lot actually.
Prohibition gave gin drinkers two things: bathtub gin and some great cocktails!
The Volstead Act
From 1920 to 1933 the United States was under a constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation and sale of any alcoholic beverage whatsoever. Many years of campaigning by the temperance movement and social pressure groups, spearheaded by the umbrella organisation the Anti-Saloon League, culminated in the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution and the passing of the Volstead Act (essentially Prohibition) by the House of Representatives and the Senate in October 1919.
The argument of the Anti-Saloon League was a moral one in that alcohol was corrupting the nation, both politically and personally. And there is some truth in their argument. As alcohol consumption went down, the health of the nation generally increased, with fewer deaths attributed to cirrhosis of the liver during this period.
And so in January 1920 when the act was enforced and Prohibition began, so did 13 long ‘dry’ years for the people of America. Although, this period was drier for some than others. Private consumption of alcohol is said to have continued with the wealthy simply stockpiling their supplies before Prohibition was put into force.
The Eighteenth Amendment was eventually repealed on December 5th 1933 as it was deemed ineffective and unenforceable. But not before it had opened the door to organized crime, with the speakeasy replacing the saloon and bootlegging becoming an alternative source of income for some. Prohibition had become big business, worth $2,000 million to bootleggers and organised criminals, like Bugs Moran and Al Capone.
The derogatory term ‘bathtub’ for the homemade gin that flourished in this period first appeared in 1920. There is some confusion as to its exact origin. It could have come about because the bottles used were too tall to be filled with water from a kitchen faucet and therefore had to be filled from a bathtub tap. It could also have originated from the production method. Homemade gin, which was essentially compound gin and didn’t need a still, could be made in quantity in the metal bathtubs of the day. Ideal vessels to be used and hidden in plain sight of the authorities. Who would suspect a bathtub of being part of a bootleggers alcohol production line?
Either way bathtub gin had a pretty poor reputation at the time. Made using a base spirit of poor quality, illegally distilled alcohol or worse, redistilled denatured alcohol, it was mixed or compounded with juniper oil, water and glycerine to sweeten. The result was often dire and frequently fatal. 50,000 deaths in the Prohibition Era are attributed to illegal alcohol.
Bathtub gin lives on today in some excellent examples of the craft and has shaken off its negative connotations. And thankfully also it’s lethal properties. Ableforth’s is one such shining example. Great with just Indian tonic and ice.
The Great Bartender Emigration!
Another side effect of Prohibition was the sudden unemployment of bartenders. While speakeasies were happy to serve up bathtub gin and moonshine liquor of dubious origin, many bartenders were used to serving more upper class and discerning clientele. Some of America’s most talented bartenders emigrated in droves to London, Paris and Havana fostering a boom in cocktail culture in those cities. Cocktails had been mixed by bartenders for years but the Prohibition Era was the golden age of mixology. Such bartenders were the DJs of their time and had quasi-star status.
Harry Craddock, one such emigree, came to London to work as Head Bartender at the American Bar at The Savoy. His seminal work The Savoy Cocktail Book with 750 cocktail recipes is still highly regarded today. Quite the showman, rumour has it that he shook the last cocktail on the eve of the Prohibition Era. The White Lady is one of his signature cocktails.
After the 1930s cocktails as an art form declined until the 1990s.
The Last Word
The last word should go to the Last Word, a zingy cocktail originating around this time.
Ingredients:~ Equal parts gin, Green Chartreuse, maraschino liqueur, freshly squeezed lime juice.
Method:~ Shake over ice. Strain into a martini glass. Garnish with a lime or lemon twist.