It was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, and it was an age of satire.
Echoes of the Jazz Age, F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Eighteenth Amendment prohibited the manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors. It was never illegal to drink liquor as long as you hadn’t made, bought or moved it, and with Prohibition, alcohol was thought to be effectively banned when it became the law of the land on January 16, 1920.
What followed was a fascination with alcohol that ran wildfire into the American collective consciousness. People who'd never tasted a cocktail suddenly wanted to. The mystique of the outlaw had a powerful allure and, for many, cocktail parties came to symbolize high society and jazz-age sophistication. More than just the American way to serve drinks, mixing cocktails became a part of American culture and the American state of mind.
When 8,168 licensed, liquor-serving saloons and restaurants in New York City were shuttered because of the new law, 32,000 illegal speakeasies soon sprung up. The ability to spot a Federal Prohibition agent was more valued than knowing the finer points of tavern etiquette and deportment. Without licensing hassles or city inspections, anyone could open a speakeasy or become a bartender, if they didn’t mind breaking the law. Americans flocked to the speakeasies.
America’s old love affair with tea and the tea dance, a popular, group entertainment held in hotels and halls where young people could meet, took a back seat to this new libation and gathering place. Speakeasies were regarded as more chic than criminal. The Nineteenth Amendment giving women the right to vote would pass on August 16, 1920, and, with one foot on the brass rail and a cigarette in hand, women asserted themselves by ordering their cocktail of choice. It was liquid emancipation in a glass. Single women, long excluded from drinking in public restaurants and dining rooms, invaded speakeasies. Drinking was once a man’s game only but now it was open to all and men and women could drink openly together.
The at-home, afternoon tea, once an inexpensive way to repay social obligations, turned into the 5 o’clock cocktail hour and a new, American institution was established. Cocktail shakers looked like the tea pots they replaced and the ability to mix a good cocktail was just as important as learning the latest dance step. Colorful concoctions with sweet mixes stretched out the supply of illicit alcohol and helped disguise the taste of homemade hooch. Gin, easier to duplicate than rye or scotch, became popular and the martini was a favorite. Among the well-to-do, cocktails before dinner was socially obligatory and a common topic of conversation at cocktail hour was, naturally, spirits and cocktails. People boasted about their favorite bootleggers and their prices, recent openings or closing of speakeasies, new recipes and the latest cocktail accessories they added to their liquor cabinet.
Young people set new trends and the nation followed. It was smart to drink and to drink beyond excess. Liquor was sold and distributed on college campuses by students with bootleg connections and the fact that this was an illicit activity only added to the glamour. College towns filled with speakeasies and bootleggers. Students bragged of their ability to “tie one on” and the hip flask, up-tilted above faces both masculine and feminine at the big, college football games was as common as a raccoon skin coat. It was the Jazz Age and this wild, new generation danced into the limelight. Flappers with bobbed hair, lipstick, hemlines above the knees and rolled-down stockings lead the way, dancing the Charleston, the Shimmy or the Black Bottom. Quickly the elders joined the party, people in their thirties to their fifties and beyond. Anyone with the ability to raise a glass could join in. The economy soared, jazz music roared and bathtub gin poured.
Major department stores took out large ads in newspapers featuring the latest beverage mixers (a.k.a. cocktail shakers) along with glassware and serving trays. Dainty tea napkins, now featuring embroidered roosters, sold as cocktail napkins. Coffee tables were re-dubbed "cocktail" tables and small, home bars were offered, complete with brass rails. Speciality stores sold wide varieties of cocktail items, recipe books, suitcase-like traveling bars for the business man and hip flasks in an endless assortment of designs. Cocktail shakers, starting at two or three dollars in silver plate, went up to six hundred dollars for a complete set in sterling silver. Respectable Fifth Avenue shops which would normally shudder at the thought of selling window jimmies and other tools designed for breaking laws proudly displayed these anti-Prohibition items in their store windows. A cocktail shaker was the perfect gift for the holidays or a wedding.
Obtaining spirits was never much of a problem during this period in spite of the law. Liquor poured in over our borders and flooded the country, smuggled from Canada and along the East Coast. If there was none to be found, many made their own. Articles were published in newspapers and magazines about distilling and home brewing. Cocktail recipe and instructional books at public libraries became dog-eared and went missing. The U.S. Department of Agriculture even published booklets with information on the manufacture of liquor from fruits, grains, potato peelings, beets, vegetables and pumpkins. The “Grape Brick,” a dried, grape concentrate, about the size of a one pound block of butter was available at grocery stores. This product had bizarre, specific instructions on it's label, namely: do not add yeast, mix with one gallon of water and store in a dark place for 30 days because this would produce an illegal drink. Stores took orders for five or ten gallon crocks and delivered the quantity of grape concentrate in eight flavors including Muscatel, Burgundy and Claret with similar warnings about how one might "accidentally" make alcohol. Hardware stores sold copper tubing, jars and liquor manufacturing accessories. Anything needed to put together a home still that would produce gallons of spirits for the next party was available.
Nowhere was the new cocktail culture more evident than in the motion picture industry. Studios embraced the anti-Prohibition, hedonistic life style. The 1920s film, The Flapper, introduced and popularized this new type of woman. At 16, she dreamed of lovers, jazz clubs and speakeasies. Films took advantage of the public's lust for jazz, fast cars, wild parties, sex and drinking scenes. Movie attendance swelled for films with titles like Flaming Youth (1923) and The Perfect Flapper (1924). In 1928, M.G.M featured a young Joan Crawford in the risqué, Our Dancing Daughters. In one scene, Joan rips off part of her dress as she manically dances the Charleston on a table top.
Cocktail culture roared across the screen continuing into the 1930s and the American Depression. Our Modern Maidens (1929), Our Blushing Brides (1930) and Dance, Fools, Dance, Laughing Sinners and This Modern Age (all 1931) featured heavy drinking and exquisite bar ware on their sets. Almost every character had a liquor cabinet in their stylish apartment as drinking was a part of daily life. Stars were constantly mixing and sipping cocktails when they weren’t lighting each others’ cigarettes, another symbol of sophistication. Movie fans that watched Fred and Ginger dance across the screen wanted their own symbol of the good life during the Depression. A cocktail shaker, the perfect size for any china cabinet, was shiny and delivered a transforming elixir.
The Thin Man was the first in a series of six highly successful films that established William Powell and Myna Loy as a leading screen team. Playing Nick and Nora Charles, wise cracking darlings of society, they mixed cocktails and sleuthing savoir-faire. They were delightfully sodden through this first film and, in an iconic scene, Nick, in an impeccable tuxedo, gives a lesson in cocktail shaking: "The important thing is the rhythm," he drawls, in his urbane, slightly sauced speech. "Always have rhythm in your shaking. Now, a Manhattan you shake to a foxtrot. A Bronx, to two-step time. A dry martini you always shake to waltz time.” The Thin Man received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture of 1934. It Happened One Night, starring Clarke Gable and Claudette Colbert as an upstart, society girl, won the award that year.
Repeal, in 1933, incited another surge in the demand for cocktail accessories. As the saying goes; “if you want to make something popular, pass a law against it." To make it even more popular, perhaps wait fourteen years and then repeal that law. Meeting the increased demand for all things cocktail, machine age factories began turning out shakers and bar ware at high speed. Mass produced cocktail sets brought both utility and glamour to the average home after Repeal. Great glass companies such as Cambridge, Heisey, Hawks, and Imperial created stunning, etched and silk-screened designs in brilliant hues of ruby and cobalt. Rush orders for bar ware by hotels and stores caused Libbey Glass Company to fall twelve weeks behind on their delivery schedules. By the end of the 1930's, cocktail shakers and bar ware were standard household objects, affordable to all, and came in the shape of bowling pins, dumbbells or a lady’s leg. Every family had at least one shaker. Used or not, it was a symbol of the good life or of better times ahead.
This historic cocktail culture and the economic depression it thrived in would both end on the same day; December 7, 1941, the day that went down in infamy with the attack on Pearl Harbor. America’s involvement in World War II began and the golden age of the cocktail shaker was over. All energy was directed toward the war effort and companies that once made cocktail shakers were now producing artillery shells. After the war, few thought of their cocktail shaker sets again. It was the Atomic Age, a time of jet propelled airplanes, a thing called television and new cars with lots of chrome. The Martini and the Manhattan were still with us into the Mad Men period of the late 1950's, but there wasn’t the same interest in concocting a drink. Popular in these times was the Highball, easily mixed with little reward for effort and showmanship.
Thankfully, cocktail culture is with us again, starting most notably in 1987 with the reopening of the Rainbow Room above New York City's Rockefeller Center and its bartender extraordinaire, Dale DeGroff. DeGroff pioneered a gourmet approach to recreating the great, classic cocktails. In the 1990's, another resurgence began with a new appreciation for the Martini. This trend was reinforced by four sexy city women who downed more than a few Cosmos on HBO. In 2002, Ann Tuennerman created Tales Of The Cocktail in New Orleans; the world's first, international cocktail festival, bringing together premier mixology professionals to share their stories of cocktails, cuisine and culture today.