Back in December, we happily celebrated the anniversary of Repeal Day, featuring a recipe for the Scofflaw cocktail and sharing anecdotes of the joyous day when Prohibition ended and (legal) booze came back to Boston. This week, however, marks a very different anniversary: the day that the Volstead Act was passed. On January 16, 1920, also known the “sober sixteenth”, the law went into effect making it illegal to purchase alcohol across the country.
Newspaper accounts and stories from the era indicate that Bostonians took a rather jocular tone in the days leading up to the inevitable passing of the Volstead Act. After all, the commonwealth had experimented with “going dry” several times before, all of which were overturned rather quickly. The night before the act was passed, Boston bars were filled with people looking to get one last taste of their favorite drinks. Waiters dressed as though they were attending a funeral, and many mock “wakes”—featuring coffins filled with empty bottles—were held at bars around the city.
With the passing of the Volstead Act, Boston entered the age of bootlegging and speakeasies, neither of which was as glamorous as Hollywood has made them out to be. Many enterprising souls turned to making their own booze, whether it was to sell for a profit or for their own consumption. One of the most famous types of moonshine from the Prohibition era, Bathtub gin, was made by mixing cheap grain alcohol with flavoring agents like juniper berry extract to make it taste more like gin, the preferred spirit of the time. Bootleggers often made large batches at once, using the bathtub to distill, ferment, store and eventually bottle the “gin”.
Contrary to what you may have heard, cocktails were NOT invented during Prohibition, though they were certainly a popular way to drink the illegally made moonshine. Syrups, fruit, bitters and other ingredients helped mask the harsh flavors of the homemade hooch. One cocktail that may have surfaced during this period (though it could have existed prior to 1920) was the Bee’s Knees, a strong gin drink made with honey and lemon that went down nice and easy. According to Boston writer and cocktail-lover Luke O’Neil, it is thought that the name may have been taken from a popular saying at the time, when calling something “the bee’s knees” was high praise.
The Bee’s Knees
1 1/2 oz gin
3/4 oz honey syrup
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
To make honey syrup mix equal parts honey with hot water; stir until dissolved. Shake all ingredients well over ice. Strain into a chilled glass and garnish with a lemon twist.
Join us at the Bawdy Boston at the ‘Beagle event this Sunday, and you’ll be treated to a fascinating look at Boston during Prohibition with author Stephanie Schorow. Prohibition-inspired cocktails will also be served, but we promise that absolutely no bathtub gin will be used as an ingredient. In fact, local distillers Bully Boy (who just so happen to have the bootlegging spirit in their bloodline) will be on hand to showcase their craft white whiskey, white rum and vodka in cocktails created especially for the event.
For more about the history of Prohibition and how it all played out in Boston, pick up a copy of Drinking Boston: A History of the City and Its Spirits, by Stephanie Schorow.