Notes from a bootlegger’s manual, plus two recipes offering a taste of Prohibition.
When author Matthew Rowley was given a handwritten manuscript hidden within a book of poetry, he could hardly believe the treasure in his hands. A historian and specialist in illicit alcohol, Rowley knew Prohibition’s dark corners but didn’t expect this missing piece of the era’s puzzle. Written almost a century ago by a physician in 1920s Manhattan, the notebook contained more than 300 secret recipes for compounding — the lost art of blending alcohol for cordials and credible imitations of whiskey, gin, liquors and even champagne.
Published in October from The Countryman Press, Lost Recipes of Prohibition reproduces the pages from this manuscript, along with a look at Prohibition itself through Rowley’s expert commentary. Some of the recipes have been modernized for the home kitchen or bar, and an authentic collection of early 20th century recipes, complete with notes from the bartenders who invented them, will help you recreate that speakeasy feeling at home.
If Doctor Lyon had published the formulas and recipes he recorded during America’s Prohibition years rather than keep them hidden in a secret notebook, he likely would have been tossed in jail. They were not strictly secret, but were not what we’d call common knowledge. Prohibitionists aimed to keep it that way. Pharmacists, physicians, and some journalists knew about blending and compounding colors, aromas, and flavors with spirits and syrups, as did blenders, liquor wholesalers, distillers, saloon owners, and others who handled liquor in their profession.
Starting in 1920, though, new laws forbade publishing recipes, formulas, and directions for making alcoholic beverages. American publishers released a smattering of cocktail guides during Prohibition—after all, cocktails per se were not illegal. Instructions for producing alcohol, however, were. Publishers could be, and were, arrested and fined if they provided formulas for making liquor. Just days into the “noble experiment” in 1920, for instance, revenue agents nabbed John Mitchell, editor of the Richmond Planet, for publishing a liquor recipe collection.11 American libraries pulled books that dealt with manufacturing cordials, wines, liquor, and other intoxicating beverages. To their credit, many librarians did not destroy the books, but shifted them to reference shelves. At the New York Public Library, librarian Edwin P. Anderson announced, “We would no more think of forbidding readers to consult such books in our reference department than we would books on flying. After the prohibition amendment goes into effect there will be additional reasons for them, as they will be histories.”
What refreshing irony that Prohibition itself is history. Mostly.
Reprinted with permission from Lost Recipes of Prohibition: Notes from a Bootlegger’s Manual, by Matthew Rowley, The Countryman Press 2015.