Gatsby rekindles interest in cocktails

05/15/2013 5:53 PM

05/20/2014 10:44 AM

The Great Gatsby washed into movie theaters last week on a tide of cocktails.

The media gave great play to the Sidecar, Bee’s Knees and other drinks from the day, while bartenders created countless new recipes in homage to Daisy Buchanan, the men who loved her and the actors who portray them in Warner Bros.’ latest.

Not that I’m complaining.

The Jazz Age might have occurred during Prohibition, but that didn’t slow the drinking — or the writing about drinking — one bit.

Novelists simply put life on paper, according to Daniel Okrent, who in Last Call credited F. Scott Fitzgerald with cuing “the downbeat for the literary bacchanal of the 1920s.”

“That drinking became a sine qua non of American fiction in the 1920s is inarguable; that it was a reflection of what was going on in much of American life was a safe bet as well,” Okrent writes.

What was going on was, of course, Prohibition. The 18th Amendment meant to stop Americans’ drinking, but it instead merely changed how they perceived alcohol.

“It was a time when cocktails were truly forbidden fruit and finding them a risky, clandestine adventure,” according to Speakeasy by Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric of Employees Only, a modern-day New York speakeasy.

Women took their place at the bar, and house parties were as popular as hip flasks. There were plenty of speakeasies and some even glittered like a movie set. Most, however, were little more than dingy basements serving booze that was at its best watered down and at worst poisonous, according to Speakeasy.

Canned juice, ginger ale and all manner of ingredients were used to mask the taste of bad spirits. Meanwhile, American bartenders headed to London, Paris, Cuba and so on, where they created some of the best drinks of the day, according to Gary Regan’s The Joy of Mixology.

Then Prohibition ended in 1933, just as the Great Depression began tightening its grip. America settled down, and with it its cocktails, William Grimes writes in Straight Up or On the Rocks.

“Americans were happy just to get decent liquor, and in any case, hard times were taking the frivolity out of America’s drink culture,” Grimes writes. “The novelty of novelty had worn off.”

Whiskey cocktails like the Ward Eight and the Old Fashioned replaced sweet, creamy speakeasy drinks. Vodka even made its first appearance.

Much has been written about what happened in the intervening 80-odd years, but here we are again, still captivated by Gatsby and the beat of a cocktail shaker.

That can’t be a bad thing.

The Boulevardier

Many of the best Prohibition-era cocktails were created by American bartenders working overseas. Harry McElhone, a New Yorker who set up bar in London and then Paris, included this drink in his 1927 bar guide, Barflies and Cocktails, according to Ted Haigh’s Vintage Spirits Forgotten Cocktails.

Makes 1 drink 1-1/2 ounces bourbon 1 ounce Campari 1 ounce sweet vermouth such as Carpano Antica Cherry, for garnish Combine ingredients in a mixing glass, add ice and stir long and well. Strain into a cocktail glass, and garnish with a cherry.

Anne Brockhoff is an award-winning spirits writer who writes a monthly column for The Star’s Food section, as well as food features. She blogs at food_drink_life.wordpress.com.

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