Friday, June 10, 2011

Cocktail Chat | Prohibition v. Today

Quite a time, Prohibition.  At a time when liquor production and consumption were driven underground, purveyors used drink names to entice imbibers.  Pussyfoots, Cubanolas, Bosom Caressers, Maiden’s Prayers, Between the Sheets were just some of the “clever” names for cocktails of the day.  And since Prohibition did away with a regulated alcohol industry, that meant individuals were left to brew their own liquor for speakeasies and customers.  The results were often low-quality and foul tasking brews.  Thus many other – usually sweet and upwards of 5 to 8 ingredients – were added to mask the terrible flavor of the base spirits. 

Additionally, many inferior brews had the unfortunate & permanent side effect of killing many of those who drank them.  In 1927 alone approximately 12,000 people died from drinking substandard, homemade spirits.  Interestingly enough, it’s worth noting here that the common notions of blindness & death from drinking poorly distilled spirits is a myth.  These deleterious effects were a result of people mixing ethyl (grain) alcohol with methyl (wood) alcohol to extend the overall product.  It’s methyl that’ll blind or kill.  In fact, even low-grade distillation won’t kill.  Though poor distillation is likely to cause a hangover bad enough to make one pray for death if the levels of fusel alcohols are too high.  So there really is something to the notion of premium and top shelf liquors having less deleterious effects.  That is, if they’re highly distilled and not just a faddish label.  But I start to digress….  

All this fascinating info causes the Dilettante to consider two things:  First, in this day and age that is about as opposite from Prohibition as one can get, with vast quantities of some of the finest liquors ever produced, why are cocktail menus hawking such cloying concoctions calling themselves “martinis” such as the Godiva Chocolate, Key Lime Pie, and the Tango Mango?  Certainly there’s no need to mask inferior base products with all that sugar and nonsense.  Given what The Partner and I have experienced through this grand experiment thus far, namely that many classic cocktails tend towards the bitter and sour, perhaps the current cocktail age is a reaction to that of our parents’ and grandparents’.  Or perhaps it’s simply a matter of taste.  Back in the day, the taste was towards the sour & bitter.  Today it’s towards the sweet.  Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that there are so many different flavors that can be infused into vodka that mixologists feel compelled to create concoctions that make use of them.  It’s kind of like war –rarely is a weapon created that doesn’t get used.

The second consideration is the cleverness quotient.  A quick perusal of gives us a flurry of silly names that are familiar to most anyone: Sex on the Beach, Kamikaze, Blow Job, Incredible Hulk, Redheaded Slut, Liquid Marijuana.  While bartenders are still creating goofy names, what’s changed is that they’re not as clever as they are obvious in their references to sex & drunkenness.

I think something’s lost when we rely on flavoring a base and letting that carry the cocktail.  Cocktailing is not unlike making tea or coffee.  All three kinds of drinks include a certain amount of ritual and ceremony in their preparation and a level of sociability in their consumption.  There’s an artistry and process with cocktailing that is as much a part of the whole shebang as the drinking.  After all, what’s more interesting and exciting:  getting some grapefruit flavored vodka, splashing some 7-Up in it, and tossing a lemon twist on top?  Or shaking gin, Cointreau, & lemon juice until the tin is frosty, frosty, then popping a bottle of Champagne to top the mix with, taking a sip and discovering, "Hey, it’s Fresca!"
Before March, I wouldn’t think to pose such a question.  Since then, I’ve come to prefer the latter for the artistry, the conversation, the fellowship, the surprise, and of course, the gentle buzz.

Harrington, Paul, and Laura Moorhead. Cocktail: the Drinks Bible for the 21st Century. New York: Viking, 1998. Print.

Smiley, Ian. The Home Distilling Professionals - Smiley's Home Distilling. Web. 10 June 2011. . Web. 10 June 2011. .

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