By Ron Fisher

The Volstead Act — the 18th Amendment — was passed in late 1919, and from 1920-1933, the Noble Experiment of Prohibition ruled the land. No one could have imagined the changes that would ensue.

The era is frequently thought of as the heyday of the cocktail, but that image is far from the truth. Hard liquor did replace beer and wine, but overall, alcohol was harder to come by and became more expensive, and was frequently of lower quality. Gin arose as a liquor of convenience. It could be made quickly and was ready for consumption as soon as it was finished. But, a Prohibition cocktail usually required some type of flavoring to cover the taste of bad liquor. What worked? Juices, bitters, tonics, or even a lemon twist sprayed on the surface. For those with the wherewithal, imported whiskies and wines could still be had. For the rest, it was locally produced hooch that had to be dressed up.

Prohibition transformed societal norms, as well. Before Prohibition, only men were allowed in saloons, but since now no one was supposed to drink, <anyone> could drink, and women were welcomed as bar patrons. Where previously races had been segregated, in many places they mixed. Prohibition also brought organized crime — there was a lot of money to be made in the transport and sale of liquor, and an underworld industry rose to fill the vacuum. And, high-end bars were transformed into nightclubs, with jazz musicians and dancing, neither of which had existed beforehand. If you think of flappers with short dresses and risqué make-up <lindying> the night away, you’re probably not far off.

These years also brought new expressions to the language. Unlicensed drinking establishments were called ‘speakeasies’, as one was supposed to speak quietly about the place in public or while at the bar to avoid drawing suspicion. A ‘bootlegger’ originally was a fellow who would carry a flask of liquor in his boot, and sell drinks individually on the street. Ultimately, a bootlegger was anyone involved in the illegal liquor trade. And, there was ‘bathtub gin’. You can’t make gin in a bathtub, you have to have a still. But, when you were watering down bottles filled with ethyl alcohol and other additives, the only tap that the bottle would fit under was in the bathtub.

The end of Prohibition came in 1933 during the depths of the Great Depression, when it became clear that enforcing the law was futile, and the Government needed the tax revenue that was lost to illegal booze. It is also likely that, under the circumstances, folks needed a drink.

The Bronx Cocktail, along with the Martini and the Manhattan, were absolute standards in every bar during and immediately after Prohibition. How popular were these three? In the 1934 film “The Thin Man”, William Powell discussed needing rhythm when shaking a cocktail. “A Manhattan you shake to fox-trot time, a Bronx to two-step time, and a dry Martini you always shake to waltz time.” We all have heard of the Martini and the Manhattan, but the Bronx has been completely forgotten. What happened?

A Bronx cocktail is made with gin, sweet vermouth, dry vermouth and orange juice. I think it was the orange juice that did the Bronx in. After so many years of the flavorings that were used in Prohibition cocktails, people had had enough. That is why Manhattans and Martinis, which are basically straight booze, are still mainstays, but the Bronx is gone. The attitude was ‘why mess around when you can get decent quality spirits that don’t need additives?’ Still, I have made the Bronx on many occasions, and it is a light and refreshing drink that people really enjoy.

<The Bronx Cocktail>

2 oz. gin *

¼ oz. sweet vermouth

¼ oz. dry vermouth

½ oz. orange juice (fresh squeezed makes it amazingly good)

Shake or stir with lots of ice and serve straight up in a cocktail glass.

* Many individuals recoil at the thought of drinking gin, and will want to replace it with vodka. Please don’t. Unless gin makes you break out in hives, causes hair loss or results in unexplainable mood swings, the subtle mix of gin’s juniper flavors with the two vermouths and the orange juice cannot be replaced by vodka.