Prohibition-inspired drinks make a comeback
Necessity, the saying goes, is the mother of intoxication. Well, obviously, there are several versions of that saying. This refers to a period in history that is to today’s mixologists what the Alamo is to Texas, Stonewall is to New York and Starbucks is to people who tired of paying 15 cents for a cup of coffee.
Most people just call it Prohibition. No other period in the history of the United States experienced such an explosion of cocktail creativity. From New York to San Francisco, Galveston to Chicago and Seattle to Miami, inventing new cocktails and adapting modern twists on old ones was the rule of the land.
As many a cocktail club between Galveston and Clear Lake can now testify, what’s old is new, and better yet, better.
Across the nation, back are the days of the Sidecar, the 12-Mile Limit (it was the Three-Miler until the feds changed how close the whiskey boats could get), Between the Sheets, the Tom Collins, the French 75 (because of its punch, it was named after a World War I French gun), the Bee’s Knees and the Monkey Gland (The story behind this one? Don’t ask).
The better part is good. People sometimes forget the necessity that mothered this intoxication was that Prohibition-era booze was generally awful. (“You can’t take a bath now, dear. It’s, uh, busy.”)
The Prohibition cocktail maker who could best cover up the vile taste of cheap gin was a star.
“Liquors have changed so much,” said Steve Ratier, food and beverage manager at the Hotel Galvez & Spa, 2024 Seawall Blvd. in Galveston. His hotel has taken on the spirit — and spirits — of Prohibition with a number of both classic and classically inspired cocktails.
“We have so many more upscale alcohols now and so many more that are now sipping drinks rather than mixers,” Ratier said. “There’s a lot happening.”
How bad was the gin? San Francisco’s Barbary Coast consisted of plentiful cheap gin topped with not-so-plentiful cheap scotch. Shake well. The dirty gin martini with its dose of olive brine came about for good reason.
“The interest in these drinks is definitely resurfacing, but there’s a big gap in people who know how to make them,” said Christopher Jones, senior bartender at O’Malley’s Stage Door Pub, 2022 Postoffice St., in the island’s downtown. O’Malley’s is one of the stops on a Prohibition Pub Trail Tour held regularly in the city.
“People in school now are learning all these drinks and know what they are, but there was a long period when they weren’t popular and no one was really teaching how to make them,” Jones said. “I was a bartender in a country club and learned under a bunch of old doctors.”
Yesterday’s speakeasy specials have ushered in the era of the craft cocktail. Craft cocktails use only the finest premium alcohols. Old Prohibition cocktails used anything alcoholic. (Has anyone seen my shoe polish?) The art of mixology has combined the two, bringing new delights in the slammers that made the flappers flap.
“My staff here is mostly island bartenders,” Ratier said. “They’ve all worked for three, four years or more and have seen the trends go in and go out. Today they are seeing a lot more kinds of drinks being ordered, and that’s when you’re dealing with people who travel a lot, all over the country — the kind we have a lot of here at the hotel — they start asking for drinks they’ve had someplace else. As a result, my staff gets to see a lot more.”
The Hotel Galvez & Spa has quite a few classic cocktails on its menu — rum drinks, Tom Collins, Old-Fashioneds — but it goes further with a number of Prohibition-inspired drinks like the Galvez Sling (similar to an Old-Fashioned), and the Seawall Sidecar (see recipe on Page 30).
In Prohibition history, it’s past time for Texas to start inventing (the Margarita came much later). One theory says the higher quality of alcohol reaching Texas didn’t need covering up. Another is that we were already used to drinking bad stuff.
Names are telling: The Southside was named for Al Capone’s side of Chicago; The Colony Cocktail was the New York Colony Club, the speakeasy that entertained the Vanderbilts; and the Bunny Hug, a shooter downed between sessions of a risqué dance with the same name. The Galvez now has The Ghost Bride, a martini-ish nod to the hotel’s spirit in room 501.
Texas did develop a taste for rum — something to do with all those ships going back and forth to Cuba. Some folks swear Bacardi was a beloved Galveston family.
The Bacardi Cocktail, Between the Sheets (You’re drinking illegal alcohol but you’re offended by the name?), and the Rum Rickey were all Gulf Coast favorites. There were versions of the Mary Pickford, a rum drink from Cuba. Don’t confuse it with a Shirley Temple.
Today, the bar at Hotel Galvez goes through 30 bottles or more of rum a week.
“The old Bacardi drinks, we get a lot of that, but what is really popular is sipping rums. It’s the biggest thing.”
When the first whiff of fall rolls in, however, he says rum sales plunge. Mother Nature is like the typical police raid in Prohibition Galveston — predictable and usually with advance notice.
2 ounces of Courvoisier VS cognac
1 ounce of Cointreau Orange Liqueur
Juice from 1 lemon
Color sugar for rim of glass
It’s served in a martini glass
Fill a shaker glass with ice, add 2 ounces of Courvoisier VS and 1 ounce of Cointreau juice from 1 lemon. Shake well.
Strain into chilled martini glass that has been rimmed in sugar.
Courtesy of Hotel Galvez