Ever so often I’m forced to confront the reality that hanging out with some of my fellow craft bartenders is like being at a Lambda Lambda Lambda frat party. (Imagine Fred “the Ogre” Palowakski shouting: “Nerds!”) Our topics of discussion range from fermentation yeasts to ice density and on our nights off, which are few, we get together in tasting groups and geek out over obscure Belgian Beers, small batched gins and “Aquavit” from the West Coast.
This is far from the romantic ideal of a bartender partying late, getting the girl and tossing piles of cash in the air as he lies down to bed at sunrise. Yet that’s not really a bad thing in a city where the president, no matter how much beer he downs or cocaine he admits to snorting (not that anyone remembers him doing it), receives more than a few comparisons to Steve Urkel. So embrace it, I do.
But the modern cocktail nerd requires certain trappings. And how to fit in? You already know about the Rickey, you may have purchased a fedora, vintage vest and bar spoon and practiced craft bartending signature moves such as the hard shake. Now let’s take it the next step. In the next couple of days I’m going to point you in the direction of becoming a genuine cocktail nerd.
Let’s start at Prohibition. To get the cocktail-speak down you have to realize that Prohibition was not the cause of cocktails, which is a common misconception, but the demise of them. The Golden Age of Cocktails was prior to Prohibition during the late 19th century, approximately between 1860 and 1917. This can be confusing since new cocktail bars often reference speakeasies. (Speakeasies actually existed before prohibition and were often immigrant enclaves where they avoided taxes and government licensing fees.)
During Prohibition you had two choices for spirits, private stock or hooch. Then you generally had some hack bartender mixing your diesel fuel with OJ or soda—anything to mask the taste. Gone then are the Manhattans, Bronx’s and Dry Martinis. Replaced by binge drinking and horrific combinations that would make the Long Island Tea blush.
There is no better way to start your Prohibition education then by Garret Peck’s new book, Prohibition Hangover, in which he charts the effect of Prohibition on the United States. Then walk down to the Cogswell Temperance fountain at 7th and Pennsylvania for a glimpse of the history behind the “Noble Experiment” as it was placed in 1882 by a Dr. Cogswell to encourage men to drink pure water instead of booze. If you’re thirsty, the fountain no longer works but once you’ve taken a gander you can walk half a block to get a cold beer.