In the midst of Prohibition, it must have seemed a cruel irony to American moviegoers that the first line Greta Garbo spoke on screen was a cocktail order: “Gimme a whisky, ginger ale on the side. And don’t be stingy, baby.”
The film was 1930’s Anna Christie, trumpeted with the MGM slogan “Garbo talks!” At that point, the United States was 10 whacked-out years into its “noble experiment” to banish alcohol, a grand failure that would be serenaded off-stage with a chorus of popping corks in 1933.
To keen students of cocktail fashion, Garbo’s beverage choice was very much a Prohibition artifact. Ginger ale? For more than a century before 1920, straight rye had been the working stiff’s bracer. With the passage of the 18th Amendment, an odd thing happened. Sales of the soft drink doubled, testifying to its role as antidote for dubious hooch that was increasingly being cut with back-alley grain alcohol. The rye and ginger, sometimes served as a shot-and-chaser combination, was born.
If Garbo’s drink resonated with the times, it was one small emblem of a sea change in tastes and social customs that was capsizing Victorian and Puritan values. Legal formalities be damned, America was shimmying to the Jazz Age in the 1920s. Radios crackled with big-band broadcasts. Affordable cars rolled off the line in Detroit. The stock market roared. A nation was in party mode and the cocktail, evolving to suit the zeitgeist, was the era’s totem.
Perhaps most significantly, Western women, in the liberated garb of bare-armed flapper dresses and cloche hats, finally had a prominent stool at the bar. Speakeasies bobbed up like ice cubes in a freshly filled Collins glass, and absent the indignity of the legal saloon’s ladies’ entrance segregation, these new hideaway bootleg emporiums threw open their doors to gender equality. Suddenly, it was copacetic to carouse next to the boys. (Besides, girls made the dancing more fun.)
Ginger ale was not the only hooch helper. Lemon and lime juice, egg whites and club soda – fundamentals of the pre-Prohibition golden age – morphed from luxury to necessity. Cream, honey and, most prominently, orange juice stepped into the breach as well. “They started making juicier, sweeter cocktails because the quality of the spirits in most places was going down,” says Oliver Stern, manager of the Toronto Temperance Society, a private club specializing in pre- Prohibition classics.
Nothing was likely to be of shadier provenance than the Jazz Age’s defining spirit, gin (or, more commonly, bathtub gin). Recipe: Mix two parts grain alcohol to three parts water with a splash of juniper-berry juice; age for about as long as it takes to whisk the pail from the loo to the party room.
No wonder the Bronx, a staple of such New York speakeasies as Jack and Charlie’s, which morphed into the famed 21 Club after Repeal Day, was so popular. For a Bronx – it’s actually quite good – mix two parts gin to one part each sweet and dry vermouth on ice, add the juice of half an orange and strain into a martini glass. More cloying was the Mary Pickford, named after the Canadian-born silent-film icon, a concoction of white rum, pineapple juice and grenadine syrup. Shame on Mary.
Even in the make-do milieu of Prohibition, many classics survived more or less unscathed. Best of all, they now had literary mascots. William Faulkner gulped bourbon-based mint juleps. Dorothy Parker downed whisky sours. F. Scott Fitzgerald, the man who coined the term Jazz Age, sipped copiously on gin rickeys while crafting The Great Gatsby, the era’s defining masterpiece, about a mysterious bootlegger who throws lavish parties. Of course, everybody who could still slurped the twin pillars, the Manhattan and the martini, tainted whisky and gin notwithstanding.
All that underworld mystique and glamour are, praise be, in vogue again, thanks in part to the popular arts. TV’s Boardwalk Empire, Ken Burns’s 2011 documentary series Prohibition, Woody Allen’s recent Midnight in Paris and the forthcoming remake of The Great Gatsby, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, have been stirring up a lively cocktail of Roaring Twenties nostalgia.
Closer to the street, establishments such as The Harbord Room and Temperance Society in Toronto and the Prohibition Lounge in Vancouver’s Rosewood Hotel Georgia are helping resurrect the glam of early-20th-century imbibing. So are PDT and Employees Only in New York, both with drinks books, the latter’s evocatively titled Speakeasy.
At Employees Only, which opened on Dec. 5, 2004, Repeal Day’s anniversary, the owners throw an annual Repeal blowout, free to customers who come dressed in twenties garb. The pièce de résistance: a metre-long chocolate cake shaped like a coffin, the word “Prohibition” inscribed in white icing.
Dushan Zaric, one of the establishment’s partners, says Speakeasy’s recipes seek to nudge the past into the present. That’s why the book, co-authored with Jason Kosmas, includes vodka, ubiquitous now but not in the Jazz Age. His West Side Fizz, for example, is a Meyer-lemon-vodka riff on the old South Side Fizz, which combined gin, lemon juice, sugar, mint and club soda.
“Today we are living another golden cocktail age,” Zaric says. “If we only jazz, we will stay one-sided. We have to learn how to rock as well.”