The Booze Ban Backlash
New York--"The only way in was with a meat skewer," says Brian Crum, cellar master at midtown's 21 Club, as he pokes a brick wall in the restaurant's basement kitchen with a foot-long stretch of wire. Crum slips the wire into one of the wall's countless pin-size holes, yanks it out, tries another. Then, sensing he has the right one, he tilts it just so and pushes. The wall, all 2 tons of it, opens onto a richly stocked wine cellar that's virtually unchanged from the restaurant's days as a speakeasy in the early 1930s, when its cases of French wine and cognac constituted contraband. One corner still houses the booth where Mayor Jimmy Walker drank with his mistresses, invisible to gawkers and the NYPD.
If the 18th Amendment, which outlawed alcohol production and consumption from 1920 until its repeal in 1933, didn't wean cities like New York off booze, it did transform how, where, and what Americans drank. The 21 Club's secret cellar--where a system of collapsible shelves sent alcohol and glassware tumbling from the bar in the event of a raid--and its perch beneath a multifamily home on West 52nd Street bespeak the aura of subversion that Prohibition placed on imbibing. And many changes wrought by Prohibition, from a spike in home drinking to the debut of coed watering holes (this was the age of the flapper), have endured. Indeed, it's only in the past 20 years, says former New York Times restaurant critic William Grimes, that bartenders, some of whom were considered master chefs before Prohibition, have "rediscovered a sense of vocation."
Foreshadowing the current political divide, rural America championed Prohibition as a means of cleaning up the nation's crime- and brothel-infested cities. "The late 19th century had brought waves of eastern and southern Europeans, who'd brought in more drinking," says Daniel Okrent, who is writing a book on Prohibition. "So the existing temperance movement climbed on back of the anti-immigrant movement." But in San Francisco, New Orleans, Chicago, and other cities, where cops had grown accustomed to ducking into saloons after work and where politicians needed votes, enforcement was spotty. "The market was booming in a post-World War I euphoria," says David Wondrich, a drink critic for Esquire. "Wrong time for Prohibition."
By 1928, the NYPD had counted roughly 32,000 speak-easies. Liquor quality nose-dived, as speak-easy owners stretched expensive Canadian whiskey with water and food coloring, and home brewers produced crude--and sometimes toxic--bathtub gin. Bartenders compensated by going heavy on the orange juice and ginger ale, but none of those recipes were palatable enough to outlive the '30s (in contrast to such 19th-century concoctions as the martini). "You get no sense whatsoever of people enjoying cocktails," says Grimes. "The attitude was, 'Get it down the hatch.'"
Sky-high prices. And "because the police had to be seen to be seen doing something," Grimes says, "there was uncertainty built into the equation," which meant spirits soared to three or four times pre-'20s prices. Steve Shlopak, owner of a former Greenwich Village speak-easy called Chumley's, found a Prohibition-era menu that lists pricey "English" and "Tennessee" teas, likely code for gin and whiskey cocktails. He also unearthed two dumpsterloads' worth of smashed teacups in a well under his bar, remnants of frantic evacuations provoked by police raids.