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Pre-Prohibition Mixology!

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The bar at the Hoffman House hotel, New York, 1890, featuring the famous/scandalous painting, “Nymphs and Satyr.”  H.A. Thomas & Wylie. Prints and Photographs Division.

There are several methods of carrying out social anthropology research on times past. You might conduct a study of demographic and economic charts, read newspapers of the era (paying special attention to the ads) or consult best-seller lists of books and music.

Or you might check the liquor cabinet.

This brings us to a delightfully curated selection of Library bartender manuals, “American Mixology: Recipe Books from the Pre-Prohibition Era,” put together by Alison Kelly, a reference and research specialist in the Science, Technology & Business Division. The collection is composed of 10 cocktail recipe books, from 1869 to 1911, that form a “cross-section of pre-Prohibition cocktail culture in America,” as Alison puts it. These books are available online, so if you’re of legal age, you can shake up a Champagne Cobbler or Knickerbocker Punch and party (responsibly) like it’s 1869.

Both of those drinks are from “Haney’s Steward & Barkeeper’s Manual.”  While unregulated alcohol was poured down the hatch in all manners of times and places, cocktail culture was a slightly to greatly more refined art. The cocktail was the cultured drink of a sophisticate who wanted something more upscale than beer and less intoxicating that 100-proof rotgut.

“Scientific Bar-Keeping,” 1884. E.N. Cook & Co. Science, Business & Technology Division.

Ergo, the need for a top-shelf barman (almost always men at the time) to know his trade, to know how to combine alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages to create a uniquely satisfying choice. Your shelf needed wines, whiskeys, liqueurs, champagnes, cognacs, bitters, syrups, juices, jiggers, garnishes, ices, zests, mixers, modifiers, muddlers, sodas, seltzers, strainers, swizzle sticks, a shaker and — of course — a proper wardrobe. According to Haney’s, the mid-19th century bartender dressed the part: “A long white apron is almost an indispensable requisite behind a bar; and in summer time a white linen coat presents a tidy appearance.”

Others wrote for the everyman. Jacob Grohusko, author of “Jack’s Manual,” stressed that his 1908 and 1910 editions were not intended to be one of the “literary marvels,” but a handbook for the “prince of good fellows” who was mixing up, say, a good Tom Collins for his friends.

Cocktail lounges were largely gentlemen’s establishments, refined but still a bit racy. The upscale Hoffman House hotel, a New York landmark in the chromolithograph at the top of this post, was considered the unofficial headquarters of Tammany Hall politicians. William “Boss” Tweed lived at the hotel for a time. Grover Cleveland was living there when he was elected to his second term as president.

The hotel bar, meanwhile, was famously (or infamously) the home of the William-Adolphe Bouguereau painting, “Nymphs and Satyr,” which featured female nudes. It was so scandalous that people came to the bar to gawk. Hotel management graciously hung it across from a huge mirror  — so  patrons could catch glimpses of its reflection without having to suffer the embarrassment of being seen looking at it.

During this era, bourbon, rum and gin were the staples of the barman’s trade. Vodka and tequila were rare. Trendy drinks, most of which are now lost to time, had colorful names. You could sip shrubs, flips, smashes, toddies and dozens of punches, including those made of parsnips.

The premier drink of the post-Civil War years, according to Haney’s, was the julep, which still abides today.

“Of all the productions of the bar the julep is, without question, the chef d’ouvre (masterpiece),” wrote Haney’s. “It is essentially and originally American, and is made to perfection in the Southern States where it is universally popular.” The best of all, the publication said, was the mint julep.

Title page of book with a ink sketch of the mustachioed, balding author
Harry Johnson’s New and Improved Bartender’s Manual,” 1882. Science, Business & Technology Division.

Here’s Haney’s recipe:

Fill a large bar glass with thinly shaved ice, then top with a few mint sprigs and a tablespoon of white sugar. Add in 1.5 wine glasses of the “finest cognac.” Drop in a few berries (it doesn’t say what kind) and a couple of slices of orange. Shake. Add a splash of port or Jamaican rum.  Sprinkle with some more sugar; garnish with more berries and another sprig of mint in the center. Serve with a straw.

Wait — a mint julep without bourbon? Is this a misprint? A bad joke?

You’ll note that this was in 1869. The first Kentucky Derby was six years later, in 1875. The Bluegrass State’s most famous product, along with racehorses, was and is bourbon. The mint julep was already a popular drink of the era, but people drank it at the Derby with homegrown bourbon instead of rum and cognac. Today, nearly 150 years later, the standard mint julep recipe is simple syrup (sugar dissolved in water) and bourbon poured over crushed ice and garnished with mint sprigs. That’s it.

That’s what we mean about cultural anthropology, seeing how the same drink (or drinks) have evolved over the decades. The Kentucky Derby became an annual cultural event across the nation and its version of the mint julep did, too.

The idea that cocktails were a self-conscious act of refinement was a daily reality of the era, too. In 1898, Joseph Haywood published “Mixology: The Art of Preparing All Kinds of Drinks.” It sold for $1. Adjusting for inflation, that’s about  $30 in 2021. It was intended for the upscale set and Haywood made no bones about it. He saw cocktails as an American art form.

“…from time immemorial, men have indulged in some particular social drink, according to the custom or mannerisms of their respective countries,” he wrote in the introduction. “We, the people of these United States have more or less penchant for having our drinks mixed; hence, ‘Mixology’ … The mixologist who who concocts his beverages in a tasteful and artistic m.anner is a genuine public benefactor, providing he uses wholesome ingredients in the compounding thereof.”

More than a century later, any good bartender would agree.

New York Yacht Club cocktail lounge, circa 1901. Photo: Wurts Brothers. Prints and Photographs Division.

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Comments (7)

  1. Perfect

  2. Nice

  3. An excellent read!

  4. Neat.

    • Thank you…and we see what you did there, Tara! 🙂


  5. Hello,
    I would appreciate you if you would kindly sent me the book called “the Cloister and the Hearth” by Charles Reade.

    Best regards,

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