How Would-Be Alchemists Made Booze During Prohibition
Photos courtesy of Countryman Press.

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How Would-Be Alchemists Made Booze During Prohibition

Matthew Rowley’s new book Lost Recipes of Prohibition examines an era when compounders and distillers of varying abilities were doing their best to keep people buzzed.

Somewhere in Harlem, in an inconspicuous warehouse or deep in the bowels of a brownstone, a man stood before a chemistry setup loaded with beakers, scales, and buckets, studying an ingredient list written with a crimped hand in a small book.

He'd spent months collecting everything, and now it was time to get to work. He made his way down the list, checking off the five ounces of bitter almond meal, three gallons of good vinegar, four ounces of ground cassia buds, one ounce of powdered cloves, and half a dozen other ingredients. He had everything, including the 100 gallons of malt spirits. The man, a physician by trade, was going to make some brandy.

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When Prohibition hit, Americans didn't stop drinking. Rather, they drew upon some of that fabled American ingenuity to bootleg and cook up illegal spirits in impressive quantities. But it wasn't all bathtub gin distillers and rumrunners. Drinks historian Matthew Rowley suspects that Harlem physician and first-generation German immigrant Victor Lyon was another type of illegal booze producer: a compounder who mixed and doctored neutral grain spirits into imitations of gin, whiskey, absinthe, and more.

"I think you probably had a lot of inexpertly made, maybe not good-tasting liquor," Rowley told me. "But as long as nobody was putting methanol in it to stretch it,"—and inadvertently kill you—"it was probably just as good as any of the moonshines that we buy today."

Lost Recipes of Prohibition cover - hi res

Photos courtesy of Countryman Press.Lost Recipes of Prohibition: Notes from a Bootlegger's Manuel

Rowley's new book examines a time just beyond the golden age of the cocktail, when barmen concocted exquisite creations and perfected timeless classics. By juxtaposition, the dark era of Prohibition is thought of as a fall from Olympus, when a desiccated nation drained what bitter impostor alcohol was to be had in dens tucked away from Puritan eyes. But even if bartenders weren't mixing up Ramos Gin Fizzes at the Plaza, compounders and distillers of varying abilities were doing their best to keep people buzzed.

Much of what is remembered about Prohibition has been clouded by time, if not by all the alcohol we've been drinking since. In fact, a lot of people were drinking during Prohibition, and many of them legally. Wine was permitted for religious purposes, making hard cider for personal consumption was allowed, and it was perfectly legal to drink liquor that you owned before Prohibition took effect. Unsurprisingly, those that could hoarded liquor before the Volstead Act became law in 1919 and religious fervor swept the nation.

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But a great deal of booze was cooked up, concocted and doctored by people who saw an opportunity to make a buck. Rowley dives into the underground world of compounders who crafted diverse liquors from pure alcohol, essential oils, spices, tinctures, syrups, and other adulterants. From a motley list of ingredients that were more or less available, during prohibition compounders were able to make everything from rum to port to genever.

"The amount of home distilling and blending of liquors during Prohibition is kind of like people who drive for Uber or Lyft," Rowley said. "It's not necessarily their main job, but they could use it to make a little extra, maybe make ends meet. Maybe they're going to save up for something. They knew what they were doing was illegal, but they didn't regard it as a good law."

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Prohibition-era DIY Bénédictine and crème de menthe.The Candle and the Flame

Rowley's journey began with a curious little book given to him by a friend, a collection of poetry titled by the German-American George Sylvester Viereck, who would later fall into disrepute due to his outspoken support for the German Kaiser. Inside the faded cover, however, there was no poetry—it was a bootlegger's manual, a secret collection of recipes and notes describing how to make liquors. Inquiring minds presumably wouldn't suspect something illicit in the book of poetry by a disgraced writer.

"Once I cracked it open and started sifting through the pages, I understood more or less what I was looking at," Rowley said. "These are the kinds of recipes that modern bartenders, especially since, say, the turn of the millennium, in large part have come to sort of pooh-pooh, to look back on and just say, 'It's bathtub gin, and these are the kind of drinks we're trying to get away from. And if you go too far down this path, what you're going to end up with is sour mix.'"

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But Rowley thinks that dismissing compounding out of hand is to overlook some real gems and forgotten techniques that are only beginning to be revived. As he experimented with the recipes within, adjusting and readjusting, he came across an excellent ginger brandy and a beautiful ice kummel, a German caraway liqueur filled with small crystals that gives a bottle a frosted look.

Getting the recipes right required some adjustments. After all, things just don't taste like they used to. For a cocktail that uses an egg white, a large grade A egg in 2016 might be the equivalent of two eggs from the early 1900s.

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Recipes for imitation rye and absinthe, among others.My god, these people used to have just a voracious appetite for nutmeg

"You look at recipes that call for nutmeg. Sometimes you think, . Well, not necessarily," Rowley said. "It could be that by the time a nutmeg landed in New York in, say, 1850, it was years old. So instead of using a few scrapings like we might, the recipes say, 'Put in two nutmegs.' Because that's what you needed to get the flavor right."

And if nutmeg was unavailable, a compounder might just say, "Screw it." The level of adulteration that was going on at every single step was incredible. If importer one cut his rum with water to increase his profit, so did buyer number two, and so on down the line, with each purchaser touching up the spirit with essential oils—flavor bombs, more or less—to create something that would meet consumer tastes. Rarely, a bad batch could be fatal, or lead to permanent disability such as blindness.

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"Just because it was coming off a ship from Europe, it doesn't mean that it was pure or unadulterated," Rowley says. "Just because it was coming from a bonded warehouse or a cargo ship doesn't mean it was the real McCoy."

Having discovered a New York Public Library call slip inside the manual, Rowley was able to identify Lyon as the author. Because physicians were able to prescribe alcohol during Prohibition, Rowley thinks that Lyon was most likely manufacturing liquor himself. If he was, it was on a considerable scale. Lyon's gin recipe, which produced more than 100 gallons, called for 80 gallons of corn spirits, one pint of oil of turpentine, eight ounces oil of juniper, 21 pounds of salt, a half-ounce of oil of caraway, one quarter ounce oil of sweet fennel and eight ounces cardamine, a type of meadow flower.

"I suspect that keeping this notebook was somewhere between following the paths of medieval monks who just copied book after book after book, just preserving knowledge, and also just sticking his finger to the Prohibitionists … just like, 'To hell with you guys.'"

These types of distillers' and compounders' manuals could offer a way forward for those who hope to continue to look to the past for inspiration. Cocktail books have largely been mined. It may be from unlikely sources, like Victor Lyon's manual, that an old treasure is revived.

"If we're going to push that forward and keep progressing, we're going to have to look at manuals and sources that aren't part of the cocktail world at first glance," he said. "We're going to have to look to compounders distillers rectifying guide. Let's look at pharmaceutical books. A lot of stuff we consider sort of tasty drinks lie hidden, neglected, in those old pages."