How the U.S. Navy influenced the bar scene in the Panama Canal
Life along the canal was, as it had been for decades, prosperous, lively and exciting.
New construction provided a boom in hiring with a welcome influx of money and spending. A stream of arriving ships filled the docks and warehouses with new goods and equipment while the hotels, restaurants and bars were filled with newcomers either taking up temporary residence or passing time as they headed to other destinations.
But residents also looked warily out to sea, knowing that somewhere, heading toward them, was something that would turn their lives upside down and their communities into chaos.
It was early 1942. Europe was at war, and the United States was about to follow after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. And yes, their prosperous canal in Panama was receiving credible threats that it too was a target of Axis leaders. Spies wormed their way through the streets, and military planners hastily designed ways to defend the important man-made waterway. The intrigue even became the basis of a movie starring Humphrey Bogart, filmed in 1941 but released in 1942, called “Across the Pacific.”
All of that was certainly enough to make Panama’s residents ill at ease, but they held their collective breath for something else — thousands upon thousands of navy personnel, on leave as their ships waited to pass through the canal or newly stationed in the U.S. forts nearby. They filled the streets, drank heavily, supported the expanding number of bordellos and often settled disagreements with brawls and fisticuffs. Panamanians had good reason to fear.
The Canal Zone had the first bout with it, though mild, in 1939 when the U.S. naval forces were passing through the canal from the Pacific to the Caribbean for its annual war games. In the 36 hours it took to get all the ships through, 40,000 sailors had shore leave in Colón. Fortunately, most were well behaved. In just three years, the numbers went drastically up, the average age went down and the good behavior went south.
These war years created a whole new drinking culture for the once quiet Zone community — calling it a new cocktail culture might give it a level of sophistication it doesn’t deserve. It created markets for Panamanian beverages that even now dot store shelves worldwide. And it made legends of some bars and restaurants whose memorabilia is sought by collectors today. Panamanian beers, many now sold in Texas, remain the most popular alcoholic beverages today, as they were in the war years. The distilled sugar cane spirit seco, considered the true drink of Panama, was widely popular in the war years, but never built an international fan base. It isn’t available in Texas.
Rum found a home among the newcomers in Panama, with Ron Abuelo Anejo at the top of the list. Don Jose Varela Blanco emigrated to Panama from Spain in 1916 to start the republic’s first sugar mill. In 1936, he and his sons began making rum, which coincidentally happened to be in time to catch the arrival of navy personnel. Timing can be everything. The rum, of which there are a number of varieties and really is exceptional, is widely sold and available locally at Total Wine & More and, with a more limited choice, at Spec’s.
Some established bars and restaurants reacted to the onslaught of U.S. military personnel by hoping it would go away and strictly limiting the military personnel they let come through the doors. Some even subtly refused service to any man in a U.S. Navy uniform, but allowed the better-behaved British seamen in, an action that caused even more problems.
One of the best-known restaurants and bars in Colón was Bilgray’s Beer Garden and Tropic Restaurant. While not shunning all military members, the business allowed only officers to mingle with its regular patrons of business owners, society figures and sophisticated gamblers. It was the Central American version of Rick’s Place in “Casa Blanca.”
For a rowdy night out, most sailors found their way to the crowded, taxi-dance bar in Panama City called Kelley’s Ritz. While the place, owned by an Austrian ex-pat, had cheap drinks, pretty women and lots of action, the thing that made Kelley’s famous was its bouncer. That would be Mamie, the owner’s wife who once ran The Old Absinthe House in New Orleans. Get out of line and Mamie, a sizable woman, would in seconds have the offender in a headlock, drag him to the door and pitch him into the street. It was hard to tell where the subject of the toss was the most injured — the neck, the part that hit the street or the ego.
Other must-go places included Stranger’s Club in Colón that ran from 1920 until 1970 and Kresch’s Place, also in Colón, just around the corner from a bar-lined street appropriately named Bottle Alley.
Kresch’s Place was owned by Isaac Kresch, originally from Poland, who had moved to Panama about six years earlier. Kresch’s Place probably would be lost to history like so many other Panamanian bars of the time except for the fact that Isaac Kresch published a cheap, paperback drink book named after his bar.
Last year, David Wondrich, a writer who owns a copy of the rare book, wrote an article about it in The Daily Beast, an online news site owned by Newsweek. Who the book was written for is kind of a mystery, since it’s unlikely his clientele were going back to their ships to mix cocktails. But in the article “Lost Cocktail Culture Navy Drinks of the Panama Canal Zone” Wondrich writes, “ …of the booklet’s 138 recipes, nestled in there among the booze ads, beer ads, toasts, random poems and song lyrics, 24 are explicitly dedicated to military institutions: forts, bases, ships, submarines, naval air squadrons, even the MPs out of tiny Fort de Lesseps … .”
Among the drinks created at Kresch’s Place and in the book are the USS 44 Special, named after a detested submarine stationed for a time in Panama. The drink might reflect the unhealthy reputation of the submarine, being a mixture of Old Tom gin, lime juice and sloe gin. That submarine, unfortunately, was sunk in the South Pacific. A similar fate awaited the ship for which the cocktail USS Gannet was named. It was sunk not far from the canal by a German submarine. Surviving the war both as a ship and a drink was the USS Mallard, a minesweeper built near the end of World War I and converted to serve as a submarine rescue ship and stationed in Panama. The cocktail is a potent force in itself, consisting of Panamanian rum, Bénédictine liqueur, absinthe and sweet vermouth.
After the war ended and U.S. military personnel became a trickle, the drinking culture of the canal zone slowly went into remission. By the time the United States gave up control of the canal, traces of the glory years almost were gone.
Fortunately, however, there is a new life in Panama’s nightlife today, with more diversity, new innovations, new excitement and fewer brawls. One thing does remain from those years, however. It’s a cocktail philosophy based on whatever floats your boat.
This recipe comes from an article in The Daily Beast written in 2019 by David Wondrich and was originally printed in a rare cocktail book called “Kresch’s Place,” produced by a bar in Colón, Panama with the same name. Many of the drinks were named after ships, U.S. Navy personnel and forts. The USS Mallard was a World War I minesweeper converted to a submarine rescue ship for World War II that was stationed in Panama. It survived the war, but was used by the navy for target practice and sunk in 1947.
USS Mallard Special
1½ ounces 7- to 9-year-old Panamanian rum
1 ounce Martini & Rossi Red Vermouth (sweet vermouth)
½ ounce Bénédictine
1 dash absinthe
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
Lemon peel twist for garnishing
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker and fill with ice. Shake well (as the recipe specifies) or stir well and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. (Note, the original recipe only calls for an ounce of rum, but adding another half of an ounce is better.)