The Chanticleer Society
A Worldwide Organization of Cocktail Enthusiasts

Gin & Prohibition

rated by 0 users
This post has 14 Replies | 5 Followers

Top 25 Contributor
Male
Posts 100
Erik Ellestad Posted: 8 Dec 2008 12:30 PM

Risking Mr. DeGroff's wrath and the classification as one of those pesky "Internet Cocktail Geeks" who enjoy "Spoiling a good story with facts"...

A lot of times when people write about prohibition and Repeal Day they will make a statement like, "During prohibition, Dry Gin became the spirit of choice in America."

Or, "Gin became popular during prohibition because it was easier to cover up the off flavors of cheap alcohol with the strong flavorings of Gin than to imitate whiskey or brandy."

I can only read statements like this so many times before I start to wonder to myself if they are actually true.

In my work on the Savoy Cocktail Book, many of the recipes contain Gin.  I haven't done statistical analysis, but if you look at the Tag Cloud on the Underhill Lounge, you'll see "Cocktails" is the largest followed by "Gin" and "Vermouth".  

Most of the sources we have identified for these Savoy recipes are either pre-prohibition, European bar books, or bartenders who left America to tend bar in Europe.

If the bartenders like Craddock and McElhone, who were fleeing prohibition, brought Gin recipes with them, they must have been drinks they were already making, not from drinks invented during prohibition.

In regards bathtub gin, if you read books like "Cocktail Boothby's American Bartender", with editions from 1891 through 1900, there are plenty of recipes for imitating or extending aged spirits, not just flavored spirits like Gin.

If Gin wasn't already popular with drinkers, why would you bother making bathtub gin?

Top 10 Contributor
Male
Posts 1,173

And don't forget the "Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book", which is claimed to be the recipes used by the Waldorf-Astoria before prohibition (for the most part). It includes a lot of gin cocktails.

I expect it wouldn't be too difficult to get some figures from some of the gin manufacturers pre and post prohibition and get an idea of gin's popularity?

Top 25 Contributor
Male
Posts 110

Consider for a moment the fact that the Eighteenth Amendment and Volstead Act went into effect more or less as of 1920. This means that the cocktails in the Waldorf=Astoria book would have dated from the early decades of the 20th century and late decades of the 19th.  Now consider the information we have from Dave Wondrich to the effect that imports of Hollands gin vastly outnumbered those of London dry in the 19th century.  This makes me wonder how many of these drinks called for London dry.

Top 25 Contributor
Male
Posts 153

Here, off the top of my head, is a rough timeline for gin in America, based on my research for Imbibe and subsequent digging:

Period                    Dominant styles (import/domestic. imitation)     

1609-1850            Dutch                                                                   

1850-1870            Dutch, a bit of Old Tom     

1870-1890             Dutch dominant, but old-fashioned; Old Tom trendy    

1890-1910             Dutch waning; commercial rise of London dry & Plymouth; Old Tom steady          

1910-1920             Dominance of London dry & Plymouth; Old Tom & particularly Dutch waning fast      

Obviously, this is very sketchy, but it'll have to do for now.

Oh the Bartender is just like a mother to me / And I am his favorite child. --Slim Gaillard

Top 25 Contributor
Male
Posts 110

Very interesting.  So, what would you say was the predominant spirit at, say, 1900, 1910 and 1920?

Top 25 Contributor
Male
Posts 153

1900: I'd say equal parts London Dry/Plymouth, Old Tom and Hollands--very, very roughly speaking

1910: London Dry/Plymouth

1920: The same.

Oh the Bartender is just like a mother to me / And I am his favorite child. --Slim Gaillard

Top 25 Contributor
Male
Posts 110

So, these various forms of gin were already more popular than whiskey by the turn of the century?

That would definitely tend to support Eric's supposition that the received wisdom to the effect that "gin became popular as a result of prohibition" is a canard.

Top 25 Contributor
Male
Posts 153

No, no, no. Misunderstanding on my part. These were the dominant styles of gin. As for whether whiskey or gin was more popular, I've got no figures on that, although I strongly suspect it was whiskey, and by a lot. Gin was a popular dude's drink; a cocktail spirit. Everyone drank whiskey. Prohibition definitely brought gin to the fore, though, since it's a hell of a lot easier to fake up a case of gin than a case of whiskey, and fake gin tastes a lot better than fake whiskey, brandy or rum, or at least a lot closer to what it's trying to imitate.

Oh the Bartender is just like a mother to me / And I am his favorite child. --Slim Gaillard

Top 25 Contributor
Male
Posts 110

Any way of knowing or guessing as to the most popular cocktail spirits in the decades of the 20th century leading up to Prohibition?  I gather that most of the whiskey consumed circa 1910 was taken more or less unadorned (or unadulterated, depending on your outlook) rather than as a component in a cocktail.

I'm thinking that numbers of cocktails in recipe books published shortly after repeal may not be a great way of estimating this, but I'm at a loss as to a better method.

Top 25 Contributor
Male
Posts 100

It seems like one of the spiffy parts of the period after prohibition was not only that we got to drink again, but also that some of the cross pollination of drinks and ingredients that had been going on in Europe and England were rolled back into the relatively conservative American traditions of drinking.

Things like what was going on in the Cafe Royal Bar Book.

I'm assuming Dry Gin was already popular in England at the times that American Bars began to show up in hotels and other venues after the success of the American Expositions of the late 19th Century.

Did some of that English fondness for Dry Gin make its way back to America?

Top 25 Contributor
Male
Posts 153

Actually, dry gin was widely popular as a cocktail spirit here from the mid 1890s on, so the influence is as likely to have gone the other way. The Dry Martini and the Bronx, both dry gin drinks, were the most popular cocktails of the age. But fewer people drank cocktails than during Prohibition, as a percentage of American drinkers.

There were American bars in London from the 1840s, at least as curiosities, and as institutions from the 1880s on.  I don't think dry or unsweetened gin was the preferred style even in England much before then.

Oh the Bartender is just like a mother to me / And I am his favorite child. --Slim Gaillard

Top 500 Contributor
Male
Posts 6

Is it safe to assume that the old bartending guides would specify which kind of gin?  I recall without checking that some references at least were quite specific, whether to Old Tom, Hollands or London.

Top 10 Contributor
Male
Posts 1,173

Bar guides throughout history may have just said "gin" and assumed the reader would know what they meant. Depending on what era such a mention would come from would propose what gin the writer was thinking of. Some 1800 recipes would call for simply "vermouth" and assumed you realized they were talking about red/sweet/italian vermouth, but today many recipes will just say "vermouth" and assume that you know they are talking about white/dry/french vermouth.

So it is important to maintain a historical perspective as you read recipes.

Top 500 Contributor
Posts 6

Hi David

what's your thinking about why Old Tom became less popular  and eventually almost died out apart from the obvious one that perhaps the taste for sweet gin cocktails and drinks was gradually replaced by a fashion for dryer drinks?

Top 10 Contributor
Male
Posts 308

Interested to hear people's thoughts on the demise of Old Tom (and genever to an extent) as I asked a similar question in the 'The difference between... Collins & Fiz' thread...

Consultancy, training and events - www.evo-lution.org

Boker's Bitters and Dandelion & Burdock Bitters - www.bokersbitters.co.uk

The Jerry Thomas Project - www.thejerrythomasproject.blogspot.com

Page 1 of 1 (15 items) | RSS
Copyright (c) 2008-2017, The Chanticleer Society
Powered by Community Server (Non-Commercial Edition), by Telligent Systems