After decades, if not centuries, of Puritan campaigning, alcohol was prohibited in the United States from 1920 to 1933 (although some individual states officially banned it until as late as 1966). This era of Prohibition profoundly altered American society in many ways – most of them for the worse.
For organised crime, prohibition was an absolute godsend. By criminalising millions of people for continuing a cultural tradition thousands of years in the making it created a vast market for illegal distilling, underground clubbing, smuggling, protection rackets, unscrupulous loan sharks and the corruption of police officers and government officials. Some players became so rich that they gained influence over apparatus of the state itself (the Mafia amongst them) and waged gun battles in the streets to extend their empires – culminating in the Saint Valentine’s Day massacre in February 1929 in which Al Capone’s gang machine-gunned the rival Irish gang of Bugs Malone.George Raft
Anarchy in the US
Government agencies charged with suppressing illegal drinking were so desperate they sunk to poisoning illicit alcohol supplies leading to the deaths of as many as ten thousand Americans.
The perception that the government had entirely lost control of law and order was the main factor in generating support for repeal of the prohibition and this happened as soon as FD Roosevelt was elected in 1933. He’s said to have himself celebrated with a famous cocktail – the martini.
The name “speak-easy” or “speak-softly” was applied to shops and clubs where smuggled or unlicensed alcohol could be bought as early as the 1820s. It is probably British in origin, but became widely adopted in the US in the Prohibition years. Many great jazz and blues artists (like Bessie Smith) made their names in those clubs and changed the sound of music throughout the western world as a result. One of the most popular cocktails of the era became…
“The Last Word”.
The Last Word cocktail
This cocktail is composed of equal measures of gin, green Chartreuse, maraschino liqueur and freshly pressed lime juice, which are shaken with ice, then strained and served. Whilst it will always be remembered as a Prohibition drink par excellence it is first recorded on a menu from the Detroit Athletic Club dated 1916. The menu price was 35 cents – making it the most deluxe and expensive cocktail on the menu – hence the name (probably).
The creation is usually attributed to Frank Fogarty who later introduced it to New York society. However Fogarty wasn’t a barman, he was a music-hall comedian, known at the time as a “vaudevillian monologist” (which means he had the gift of the gab). The Last Word was first attributed to Fogarty in Ted Saucier’s classic 1951 cocktail book “Bottoms Up!”
When its popularity exploded during the Prohibition years some of its key ingredients had become hard, or at least expensive, to acquire and so many were replaced with improvised substitutes. One of these was commonly called “bath-tub gin” – this was usually grain alcohol infused with juniper berry juice, limes, herbs and spices and thickened with glycerine. It’s often said that one of the many reasons the popularity of cocktails soared during Prohibition was because the various additives and flavourings masked the frequently very poor taste of improvised spirits and home-brewed wines and beers.
The Last Word
The Last Word, however, must have been one of the great successes of this improvisation. There are still bars today that prefer to prepare the cocktail with a variation of bathtub gin rather than the real thing (usually using a mix of vodka, spices, herbs and lemon).
The classic cocktail has also inspired countless variations – many substituting the gin entirely with rye whisky, tequila or agave spirits. Other reasonably successful exotic substitutions are reputed to have included Aperol, Aperitivo and various Amaros.
But the real Last Word will forever be associated with the heyday years of Prohibition – without which the Roaring Twenties would have been more of a whimper.