December 5th marks the 79th anniversary of the Repeal of Prohibition. For thirteen long years, America was, as Ken Burns put it, a nation of scofflaws. Many are likely familiar with this Prohibition era neologism, but how many of you know that the origins of the word Scofflaw hail from the Boston area?
Quincy resident Delcevare King was a wealthy banker and vice president of the Massachusetts Anti-Saloon League. King believed fervently in the words of President Warren G. Harding: “Lawless drinking is a menace to the republic.” But what to call these miscreants, lawbreakers, crooks, and villains who were making a mockery of the Noble Experiment?
King decided to sponsor a contest to come up with a word for the lawless drinker of illegal beverages. The prize was $200 and etymological glory. He laid down the rules: the winning word had to start with an “S” (since “S” carried a sting); it had to be of one or two syllables, and it could not just be an epithet for drinkers in general but for those who show reckless disregard for society. More than twenty-five thousand words were submitted; the winning entry was “Scofflaw,” submitted by Henry Irving Dale of Andover and Kate L. Butler of Dorchester.
The Boston Globe had great fun in announcing the new word; an accompanying illustration spelled it “skofflaw” and showed it being used as a speakeasy password, a toast, and the call of a cuckoo clock, prompting the response, “It’s time for another.”
Within a week, the famous Harry’s New York Bar in Paris created a cocktail with rye and lemon and dubbed it The Scofflaw. Legend has it the word predated the drink by a mere eleven days – pretty impressive, considering there was no Twitter, Facebook, or internet for that matter.
Ha ha! Take that, Delcevare King!
Many assume that cocktails became popular during Prohibition when vile homebrews were tempered with juices to make them palatable. Certainly that did happen—and Ted Haigh notes that Prohibition was a time of great productivity when it comes to mixology, if for no other reason than sheer desperation. (Haigh also notes that a cottage industry for thirsty tourists emerged, in particular cruise ships calling on Havanna, San Juan, Curacao, and Jamaica.)
Still, what we tend to considered classic cocktails—the Manhattan, Sidecar, Jack Rose, Mint Julep among them—were popular long before 1920. Many of today’s cocktail historians consider the period after the Civil War and before Prohibition a Golden Age of cocktails. In the nation’s saloons, bartenders experimented with different spirit formulas, tried them out on customers, and those that passed the test were handed down by word of mouth or recorded in how-to manuals. That makes the Scofflaw somewhat unique in the annals of cocktail history – but even as a classic cocktail created during Prohibition, we must not overlook that fact that one would have had to go all the way to Paris to give it a try.
Consider it this week, and when Wednesday rolls around, join us at the Hawthorne for our Repeal Night Party: Farewell to Bathtub Gin!
The Scofflaw(Invented at Harry’s Bar in Paris in 1924.)
- 1 1⁄2 ounces rye
- 1 ounce dry vermouth
- 3⁄4 ounce fresh lemon juice
- 3⁄4 ounce real pomegranate grenadine
Shake in an iced cocktail shaker, and strain into a cocktail glass.
Garnish with a lemon twist.
For more about the history of Boston’s bars and Colonial drinks like punch, pick up a copy of Drinking Boston: A History of the City and Its Spirits, by Stephanie Schorow. To help you explore the Hub’s best bars (both historic and contemporary) download our free smartphone app. Cheers!