When it comes to cocktails, not even the law could prevent Americans from enjoying them. Prohibition was ratified in the United States in 1920, and for almost 14 years, “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating beverages” was prohibited. It wasn’t until December 5, 1933, that Prohibition was repealed federally.
Today, we look at the Prohibition era as anything but a dry period in US history. The economy was booming, jazz was everywhere, and the arts and culture scene was being redefined. Now, we revive the roaring 20s by making the cocktails that made the era so iconic.
Whether you’re looking for 1920s speakeasy drinks for your next Gatsby-themed cocktail party or you love the history of prohibition cocktails, there’s sure to be a drink and story for you from this list.
1. Bee’s Knees
The Prohibition slang term for “the best,” Bee’s Knees is a delightful mix of gin, lemon juice, and honey. Sweet and tart, it was first made in the Ritz Hotel in Paris in 1921 when head bartender Frank Meier took charge of the Cafe Parisian.
This pre-prohibition cocktail was first made with bourbon for lobbyist Joe Rickey in the 1880s. It’s said he liked to start the day with a daily dose of bourbon and preferred sugar-free cocktails. So when the DC bartender delivered the bourbon, lime, and soda water concoction, it was a winning beverage. The drink rose in popularity when gin was substituted in the 1890s.
When Ernest Hemingway went to Cuba, he tried Floridita’s signature drink, similar to a daiquiri. He asked the bartender, Constantino Ribalaigua, for another one but without the sugar and double the rum, and the Hemingway Daiquiri was born. Hemingway’s favorite cocktail has evolved — it’s now made with white rum, maraschino liqueur, lime juice, and grapefruit juice for a refreshing beverage.
Sharp and sweet, the Last Word Cocktail is a pre-prohibition beverage that rose to popularity during prohibition at the Detroit Athletic Club. It was first made in 1915 by bartender Frank Fogarty. The cocktail mixes gin, green chartreuse, lime juice, and maraschino liquor that has recently regained popularity.
A variation of the classic sour, the origins of the sidecar are debated. It appears that different bars in the 1920s developed Sidecar recipes, all with slightly different proportions. The Hotel Ritz in Paris claims they have the first recorded recipe for this cognac, orange liqueur, and lemon juice concoction.
Blending the tart and sweet, with botanicals, the recipe for White Lady was first recorded in 1919 at Ciro’s Club in London. Bartender Harry MacElhone used creme de menthe and named the drink after Eveline Alice Wander Gorkiewicz, who’d dressed up as a Turkish wash lady to help British prisoners escape Turkey in the First World War. It wasn’t until 1929 in Paris that the creme de menthe was substituted for gin and mixed with orange liquor and lemon juice at Harry’s New York Bar.
This refreshingly sweet and tropical cocktail is named after actress Mary Pickford. The most common origin story is that the Hotel de Nacional de Cuba created the cocktail in her honor when she was working in Cuba in the 1920s — although there is no record of her staying there.
The sparkling crispness of the French 75 is over 100 years old, but the recipe used today was cemented during Prohibition. The name is from 1915 when Harry’s New York Bar in Paris mixed gin, lemon juice, sugar, and champagne to make a drink that felt like you were getting shelled with the French 75mm field gun.
Mixing applejack, lemon juice, and grenadine isn’t as sweet as the ingredients suggest: it’s floral, tart, and fruity. While the name’s origin is debated, it was first mentioned pre-prohibition, and was written about by the likes of Hemmingway and Steinbeck in the 1920s.
Warming, spicy, and bittersweet, the Boulevardier is an ideal (and iconic) winter cocktail. The beverage, made of bourbon, Campari, and sweet vermouth, was developed during Prohibition at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris and was the favorite drink of writer Erskine Gwynne.