You may find this shocking, but the vast majority of bars in America still serve drinks based on habits that arose during prohibition. Prior to prohibition, cocktails were crafted with techniques that even today are often lacking. Fresh ingredients were commonplace and the selection of cocktails was vast. Just look at some of the old cocktail books, such as Jerry Thomas’ famous The Bar-tenders Guide. In fact, prior to prohibition, America was known for its great cocktails, with European tenders coming to the US to learn more about American mixology.
Harry Craddock of Savoy Cocktail fame was one of the most famous tenders to jump ship to Europe
Then prohibition hit, and all this progress came to a screeching halt. Most well trained barmen were forced into some other trade. Some left the US to tend bars in Europe and other countries. Others tended at speakeasies and kept up their craft the best they could, but for the most part, we went from a cocktail renaissance, into the dark ages.
Meanwhile in Europe, American transplants gained access to new ingredients, such as Campari, previously unavailable in the US.
Plaza Hotel barman Harry McElhone, who eventually settled in Paris, was involved in the creation of such classics as the Boulevardier and Old Pal, both using Campari, during prohibition. For the time being, America was left with speakeasies and bathtub gin.
Eventually prohibition ended and Americans could once again have their cocktails. Unfortunately, many barmen had either passed away or forgotten their trade, having moved on to something else. A huge resurgence of now legal bars took place and many Americans filled them; however, the new bartenders lacked the skills and techniques present prior to prohibition. Many older recipes were also lost. To make matters worse, most of the Americans who grew up with speakeasies knew nothing of cocktails other than cheap and often dangerous spirits cut with juice. We ended up with a perfect combination of bad bartenders and people that didn’t know or care to have a well made drink.
Another side effect of prohibition is that drinking cocktails went from what was for many a social event, an experience of enjoying a good beverage, to simply “getting a fix.” At many prohibition era gatherings, the threat of getting caught was very real. The goal for tenders and patrons alike was to make and consume alcohol quickly, lest they be caught in a raid. Largely gone was the well measured and proportioned cocktail with multiple spirits, the stirred drink and the fresh squeezed juice. Besides many great spirits not being accessible to most, all these methods of classical mixology take just a little more time. It is much faster and easier to just pour a spirit and top it with some juice/soda.
Sadly, this post-prohibition mentality has carried over for generations and we are left in an environment of often still poorly made cocktails. Just ask the average person what they typically drink. While a minority may say something unexpected, and there will likely be a fair share of Martini/Manhattans, the majority will say something such as “rum and coke,” “gin and tonic” or the ever popular “vodka and cranberry.” While Cuba Libres and Gin and Tonics are classics, they are also among the few cocktails most folks are routinely exposed to at modern bars.
Many of these bars, while serving pre-prohibition style cocktails, take their visual cues and atmosphere from speakeasies, often with hidden entrances, passwords and other touches to encourage patrons to escape the bustle of the modern world.
Fortunately, in recent years, a great resurgence of pre-prohibition style cocktail bars has been taking place. Bartenders who use the techniques of the old to create both classic cocktails and new creations. Not every drink is haphazardly thrown together by eyeballing a few ingredients and then pouring them into a 10oz martini glass. Bartending has become a craft, a way of life at these places. It’s not about how many drinks you can make in a minute, but rather, how good can you make one drink. The end result is further advancement of mixology by erasing the stigmas of post-prohibition drinking and exposing patrons to cocktails and flavors that many have likely never experienced before.
It is to this style of cocktail making that The Straight Up aspires to promote and enjoy. The emphasis is on classic mixology with new creations based on these old techniques. If one were to try any recipe without knowing, the new drinks should be largely indistinguishable from the old. The goal is to make more people aware that better cocktails are out there and that with a small amount of care, can be made using time tested techniques, whether crafting the classics or a new original.