Friday, May 31, 2019

Ten Fun Things I Learned about Prohibition Cocktails: Guest Post by Susanna Calkins

Susanna Calkins:
Ten fun things I learned about Prohibition cocktails when writing my new series

When I first started writing my new series, The Speakeasy Murders, set in 1920s Chicago, I knew I was going to have to start doing some cocktail research. I didn’t know much about cocktails other that they pre-dated Prohibition, but became popular in the 1920s. I also knew that juices, sugar, honey, fruits, spices, herbs, and eggs were all added to different liquors to mask the terrible taste of the swill they were imbibing.

So as any good writer would do, I thought I should do authentic research on cocktails. And how better to do this than vowing to try one hundred Prohibition-era cocktails by the time my book came out. Gin Rickeys, Bees’ Knees, Aviations, Gin Blossoms...I was ready! But, I got through about 35 concoctions and hit the absinthe-based ones and I basically gave up on that ridiculous quest. So instead I turned to 1920s-era newspapers, where I learned ten intriguing things about Prohibition-era cocktails:

1. Cocktails make women too masculine! Early on in the Prohibition, women were warned to “shun liquor or have beards.” By 1923, there was a sense among some scientists that “the number of women having slight growths of hair on their lips and chins has increased 10 per cent....The opinion of the majority is that the increasing masculinism [sic] of modern women is making them like men.” Right! Blame the cocktail for social change.

2. Fresh air and a new hat are the only cocktails women need! Contemporary syndicated columnist Antoinette Donnelly wrote regular features on health and beauty, with headlines like: “Imbibe plenty of fresh air cocktails,” “Cosmetics act as mental cocktail to lots of people,” and my favorite, “A new hat is often just the cocktail a weary girl needs.” Why have real cocktails (which will only make you masculine), when you can be rejuvenated by your own beauty or a walk in the park?

3. Children will be damaged if they witness parent’s “Whoopie” (cocktail drinking)! Paraphrasing an expert on parents and children, the Chicago Daily Tribune wrote in 1929: “The child, no matter how young, knows it when the parents have gone to cocktail parties and such.” Way to blame the parents!

4. Cocktails can test true love! Throughout the decade, important questions about cocktails regularly appeared in the advice columns. After Doris Blake posed to her readers, “Is it so clever for girls living in an apartment to keep a gin cupboard stocked for “callers?” Two young women explained, rather wisely, that “If you want to find out what stuff friends are made of, put them on a dry evening. The good ones will stick, but watch the rest flee.” Greater wisdom just cannot be found.

5. Cocktail shakers banned from the movies! In 1927, Will H. Hayes, president of the Motion Picture Producers and Exhibitors’ Association of America, proclaimed that “no picture will thereby be allowed to enter any shot of drinking scenes, manufacture or sale of liquor, or undue effects of liquor, which are not necessary parts of the story.” Clearly just the sight of a cocktail shaker could drive a person to drink. And distribute. And sell.

6. Cocktails cause death! For the first seven years of Prohibition, it was common for people to illegally re-distill woodgrain alcohol (methanol intended for industrial purposes), making it reasonably palatable. Though drug stores carried signs warning people not to drink woodgrain alcohol, they also posted signs above emetics in case someone did anyway. So there were occasional deaths from “bad hooch,” which people seemed to take in stride. This attitude changed in 1927, however, when the U.S. government created a new formula for industrial alcohol, seeking to deliberately denature the alcohol with a new chemical formula that basically doubled the poison in the substance. Massive fatalities resulted from the poisoned hooch over the next few years, with 33 people dying in 3 days in New York in 1928, but the formula wasn’t changed. The U.S. government was essentially condoning and supporting murder.

7. Cocktails bring about “war on chemists!” In 1927, soon after the U.S. government made the change to the woodgrain alcohol mentioned above, Prohibition agents (“Drys”) began to target chemists who were aiding and abetting bootleggers. As the Acting Prohibition Commissioner explained, “We have found that some of the chemists derive much of their income from the practice of testing liquor for the bootleg trade.” Essentially, they would rather people die than be allowed to test the alcohol for poison.

8. Cocktails cause another Great War! For years, the European elite spoke disdainfully of cocktails, most likely alarmed by the pernicious spread of the “cocktail disease from America” through the continent. As one famed French columnist noted, “These drinks have aromas like that of old vegetables, cheese boxes, etc. that are displayed in the refuse cans on a Paris morning.” But in 1928 a number of newspapers across Italy wrote simultaneous condemnations of cocktails, which may have been more of a comment on Mussolini’s hold on the press, than actual refutation of the drink.

9. Cocktail-related items made great gifts! In 1928, newsmen across New York noted how the new dry laws had caused stores to fill their windows with “Prohibition by-products,” just in time for the Christmas holiday. The “thirsty-minded” were enticed to buy such things as automatic cocktail shakers, collapsible spoons, funnels, corkscrews, liquor testing devices, “leather encased hip flasks to survive a taxi crash,” and travelling bags fitted up like a miniature bar. Shoppers could also buy supplies to make their own hooch, including hops, grapes, and barrels. They could even buy tailored clothes with hidden pockets for their flasks. Who doesn’t need a collapsible spoon?

10. Oh, and the cocktail napkin was invented in the 1920s. No one seems to know when or why, but I’m assuming they needed something to spit their drinks into when the rotgut overran the juices and sugars. 

Susanna Calkins, author of The Speakeasy Murders and award-winning Lucy Campion historical series, holds a PhD in history and teaches at the college level. Her historical mysteries have been nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark and Agatha awards, among many others, and The Masque of a Murderer received a Macavity. Originally from Philadelphia, Calkins now lives in the Chicago area with her husband and two sons. Learn more at


Kaye George said...

Did you find out why they are called cocktails? That always makes me laugh.

Anne Louise Bannnon said...

What a fun post! I have been given to understand that concentrated grapes were sold with explicit instructions on how not to make wine. Ahem.