Cheers to the Volstead Act: 6 Cocktails to Celebrate 100 Years

The gin fizz. The French 75. And of course, the martini. Won’t you join us with one of these six Prohibition-era cocktails?

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On October 28, 1919, the Volstead Act overcame a presidential veto by Woodrow Wilson to become law. For those of you who are not up to date on your alcoholic history, the Volstead Act gave the 18th Amendment teeth, providing the federal government with the mechanisms it needed to enforce Prohibition.

But the gears of government turn slowly, so Prohibition did not fully go into effect until January 17, 1920. We here at The Saturday Evening Post choose to mark this dark — though certainly not dry — occasion with a cheers to 100 years. Won’t you join us with one of these six Prohibition-era cocktails? Lock the door, draw the blinds, keep an eye out for Johnny-Law, and always drink responsibly.

The Martini

A full martini glass
A very dirty martini. American flag toothpick optional

A staple in any barfly’s repertoire, H.L. Mencken referred to the martini as “the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet.” The martini has been around since the 19th century, but took hold in America during Prohibition, so it’s the natural start for our recipe list. The martini’s popularity is rooted in its taste, as much as in its simplicity.

  • 3 ounces gin or vodka
  • ½ ounce of dry vermouth (or to taste)
  • ½ ounce of olive brine (or to taste)
  • An olive (for garnish)

Mix the first three ingredients in a shaker with ice, pour into a chilled Martini glass, and garnish with an olive.

I chose to make mine with vodka. On the classic show, M*A*S*H, Trapper John famously ­­requested his martini as “a veritable dust bowl, a drink that is dying of thirst.” I also prefer my martinis “dry,” so I cut back on the vermouth. But I also like my drink to not only be “dirty,” but rather absolutely filthy, so I pour the olive brine with a heavy hand.

Gin Fizz

A shot glass full of gin fizz
Gin fizz

The gin fizz is a Prohibition-era drink that has unfortunately fallen out of fashion. Whether it’s the cholesterol in the egg — or the salmonella — the modern drinker rarely orders this cocktail anymore, but that’s to their detriment.

  • 2 ounces of gin
  • 1 ounce of lemon juice
  • 1 egg white
  • 1 ounce of simple syrup
  • 1 ounce of club soda

Mix the first four ingredients in a shaker without ice for about 15 seconds, then add a few cubes of ice, and shake even more.  Pour these into a glass, through a filter, then add the club soda, and enjoy.

This drink is amazingly smooth and delicious. It’s a lemon square with gin it, and can best be enjoyed while watching a sport you can’t afford to bet on. I recommend polo.

Whiskey

A shot glass half-filled with whiskey
Whiskey

Whiskey.

  • Whiskey
  • Ice (optional)

Old Fashioned

A shot glass of Old Fashioned
Old fashioned

Yet another bar staple, the old fashioned has endured like the martini for similar reasons, its simplicity. While primarily bourbon, a good old fashioned uses its sweeter elements to mask the more unpleasant tastes. This would have been crucial during Prohibition, as quality alcohol was hard to come by, and drinkers were forced to rely on bootleg spirits that were severely lacking in quality.

  • 2 ounces of bourbon
  • 2 teaspoons of simple syrup
  • A dash of bitters
  • 1 maraschino cherry
  • A lemon or orange peel (garnish)
  • 1 large ice cube

Pour the ingredients into a glass, stir with a spoon, add the ice cube and the peel, and enjoy.

An Old fashioned is an incredibly tasty addition to any night on the town, but be careful, the sweet parts of the drink mask how strong they really are, and all that sugar can lead to a rough morning.

French 75

A glass of French 75
French 75

If you were lucky enough to come across champagne during Prohibition, you’d want to do everything in your power to make it last. That certainly contributed to the popularity of this refreshing drink in the 1920s. Named for a French artillery cannon, like its namesake the French 75 carries quite a punch.

  • ½ ounce of simple syrup
  • ½ ounce of fresh lemon juice
  • 1 ounce of gin
  • 3 ounces of champagne

Pour the ingredients in a champagne flute and enjoy. No complicated shaking or mixing; it’s as easy as that.

It’s understandable why this drink isn’t as popular as it once was. Champagne is expensive, and if you’re in the mood for it, there’s not much of a reason to add gin. That said, this is a great drink for celebrations, when the 12 percent of alcohol in champagne just won’t cut it. I’d recommend it for a wedding you don’t necessarily approve of. You’re not going to object when they say, “speak now or forever hold your peace,” but you’re certainly not going to stay sober for the occasion.

Tom Collins

Glass of Tim Collins
Tom Collins

Another American creation, the Tom Collins, relies on all the trappings of Prohibition-era cocktails. Using citrus and sugar to mask the taste of the underlying gin, the Tom Collins stands out as an essential drink of the time.

  • 2 ounces of gin
  • 1 ounce of lemon juice
  • ½ ounce of simple syrup
  • 3 ounces of club soda
  • Ice
  • Maraschino cherry for garnish
  • Lemon peel for garnish

Mix the gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, and ice in a glass. Once the drink is fully mixed and chilled, add the club soda and garnishes.

It would feel silly to order a Tom Collins anywhere outside of a country club these days, but it’s easy to see why the drink was so popular. It’s tasty. The cherry and simple syrup cover the taste of the gin almost entirely, and the club soda gives the drink a light, refreshing kick. While our gin may have improved (it’s nice to not have to worry about going blind from drinking anymore), the practice of masking the impurities led to the creation of a perfect summer drink.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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Comments

  1. Thank YOU Tim! I’m finally over my cold, but continue to exercise caution with plenty of vitamin C and getting to sleep no later than 11:30. As for Helen, she extinguished her cigarette OUTSIDE at her other daughter’s house (where the get togethers were held) both times, without having to be asked to do so! Progress is being made.

    As I’ve written on this site before, one infamous incident involved her daughter asking Mom to extinguish her cigarette—immediately! Instead of going outside, she took her long cigarette holder out of her mouth, and extinguished it. In the high frosting of one of the cupcakes on the foyer dessert table!

    Things got worse from there. Later, in the middle of dinner, was the first time she blurted out “I saw Bob’s *****!” I’d just taken a mouthful of the sparkling cider, and immediately expelled it in shock. Kathy calmly explained the inappropriate, out-of-context remark and we both tried to laugh it off.

    Part of what I do for a living involves spin/damage control and am good at it, but not always so much in my own life Tim, unfortunately. What I left out in my above comments when I walked over to her side of the table was her saying “I am not your mother, you son of a b—-!” before slapping me. My next move was return to my seat, smiling, acting as if it never happened, literally.

    Perhaps this is why I love ‘dark comedy’ involving embarrassing, awkward predicament moments so much. I’ve had plenty of these dreadful moments that were not my fault, but have to deal with ’em anyway, and do. One of my favorite tricks (that works) to neutralize negative situations, is to offer people wonderful, distracting hot chocolate with a smile and a slight head tilt. When/where booze isn’t allowed, it’s the next best thing. Come to think of it, so is an ice cold Coke and a smile. I do keep a little rum on hand but don’t tell anybody.

  2. Thanks, Bob. Nothing leads to wanting a drink more than extended time with family over the holidays!

    Hope you’re doing well.

  3. Thank you Tim, for this insightful feature. For what better way is there to remember this sobering centennial? 6 classic drinks with the ‘recipes’ and your helpful guidance as how to best enjoy, and what to watch out for!

    This, from (by choice) a non-drinking man for quite a few years now. I tend to get forehead headaches with liquor, so it’s best I avoid. Not always though. Kamikazes were my drink of choice at lunch once upon a time. I’d get a little sloshed at lunch with Joanne & Carol a couple of days a week, helping those afternoons at bankcard go by in a most delightful way.

    This was in the era of Fuddruckers, The Jolly Roger, Tennessee Gin & Cotton and more from a bygone time and place. It was also around the time those ladies talked me into being a shirtless Chippendale’s dude for Halloween one year, then Falco lip-synching ‘Rock Me Amadeus’ the following year. Of course I did both!

    Opposite ends of a kinda/sorta similar dress theme. I wrote of the first ‘costume’ in a Post column last year and was chastised Tim, from a lady applying today’s uptight political correctness to that of so long ago. A time not long before I made the switch to Martinelli’s, permanently, for ALL ‘drinking’.

    Yes, I refrain from drinking at Thanksgiving and Christmas even though I know my girlfriend’s Mom, Helen (after a few drinks) is likely going to bring up the 4th of July skinny dipping incident yet AGAIN where she caught me trying to retrieve my swimsuit after Jerry (the Boston Terrier) scampered off with it far enough I HAD to get out and get it! At that moment, Helen comes through the side gate in her walker and freaks out. I freak out trying to get them back on, falling into the deep end of the pool! I could have used a drink then, but no. I did have a 0.5 Xanax, however.

    2 1/2 years later I’m still dealing with it, but at these Holidays just passed, the other female guests wink at her with a wide-eyed look of shock, asking her why she keeps bringing it up, effectively silencing her. Even better, I didn’t need to get up from the table, walk over behind her and say “Isn’t she fantastic everyone? Mom I love you!” and get my face slapped.

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