The temperance reformers who pressured Congress to ban the transportation and sale of alcohol via the 18th Amendment hoped prohibition would put an end to excessive alcohol consumption (and the health and moral failings they believed went along with it).
What it did instead was launch one of the most creative eras in American cocktail history.
While bootlegging boomed and mobsters launched their own booze rings, basement and back-alley bartenders had to think outside the bottle. Until then, liquor was usually mixed with more liquor. But in the age of bathtub gin, so named because rebel imbibers used wash bins to mix hooch under the radar, bartenders turned to common household ingredients — egg whites, herbs and honey — to balance the bite instead.
Prohibition ended in 1933 and eventually the food-focused cocktail trend faded, too, behind tiki drinks and wine coolers and tiny plastic umbrellas. But in the last several years, bartenders like Taha Ismail started to embrace old as new again, favoring simple ingredients and classic techniques over gimmicks like flaming garnishes and acquafaba foam (oddly enough, made from the water in chickpea cans).
Ismail put 47 prohibition-era cocktails on the menu when he opened Octagon Bar, part of Mike Isabella’s eatery in Tysons, Virginia, last week. One of his favorites, the Bee’s Knees, is a tribute to that bathtub gin.
With American gin as a base, Ismail adds a few dashes of lavender bitters, to draw out the floral notes of the spirit, fresh lemon juice and a simple syrup made from equal parts honey and water. He shakes the ingredients with an egg white, which is frothed in the tin, and tops it with bee pollen — which sounds high-brow, Ismail said, but is easily found on Amazon.
Gins today, particularly those made in America, are complex and diverse; even the gin-averse among us should be able to find one they like, he said. But if the idea of bathtub hooch (or a college party gone wrong) has stuck with you all these years, Ismail says you can also make this cocktail with vodka, though you’ll have to use less honey syrup so it’s not too sweet.
By Taha Ismail, Bartender at Octagon Bar, Isabella Eatery
2 dashes lavender bitters
3/4 oz honey syrup (1 part hot water, 1 part honey – stir until dissolved into one mixture)
3/4 oz fresh lemon juice
1 egg white
2 ounces gin (preferably American-style gin)
Combine all ingredients in shaker
Dry shake (no ice) for 30 seconds, then add ice and shake for additional 30 seconds
Strain into cocktail glass
Garnish with bee pollen (sold on Amazon)
We’re closing out 2017 with 12 days of cocktails, a series of traditional and unusual holiday drink recipes from bartenders, mixologists and beverage directors across the country. Find them as they’re published here.