Oct. 4 (Bloomberg) -- Picture 2,000 cases of 1920 Chateau Haut-Brion claret, Ballantine’s scotch and Hine cognac hidden behind two-and-a-half-tons of brick door.
That was just part of the stash at New York’s ’21’ Club, Manhattan’s most prominent Prohibition-era speakeasy still in operation.
“As a child, it was a fun escapade to unlock the ‘magic door,’” said Karen Kriendler Nelson, the niece of ‘21’ co- founder Jack Kriendler and daughter of Robert Kriendler, who ran the restaurant for 27 years. “We all knew how to jiggle the hook and we knew what was behind the door.”
The restaurant -- insiders called it “The Numbers” -- was too upscale for bathtub gin or white lightning. The basement repository included Montrachet 1889, Romanee Conti 1880 and top- shelf liquor for a proper Bronx cocktail -- still available today for $15.
At the height of Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933, New York City had as many as 5,000 speakeasies, according to Daniel Okrent’s book “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.”
The Ken Burns documentary “Prohibition,” which concludes tonight on PBS, details the no-booze era, which stymied cocktail culture for seven decades.
The legacy of the period can be found all over New York today, from ubiquitous whiskey sours and daiquiris to old establishments like Julius’ bar and newer nightspots like Angel’s Share, where the art of mixed drinks has been reborn.
Most Prohibition-era potables emphasized ingredients intended to cover up the toxic taste of bad alcohol, said Eben Freeman, director of bar operations for the Altamarea Group.
“The first golden age of the cocktail ended with Prohibition,” Freeman said. “Bartenders went to Cuba, Europe and Asia to ply their trade.”
In most joints, the drinks were hardly drinkable, but who cared?
“People just wanted to get high,” said Freeman. “They downed white dog with coloring, bathtub gin with sweet mixers and bitters to cover up poorly crafted alcohol.”
Old Town Bar on 18th Street and Park Avenue was a speakeasy protected by Tammany Hall politicians. Co-owner Gerard Meagher said the rotgut was concealed under the seat of one of the booths that line the walls.
No White Lightning
These days, bartender Stewart Collins says they don’t sell white whisky. “We don’t need that kind of trouble around here,” he said.
This is not a cocktail bar. It’s a saloon where a beer and a shot are the norm. That said, Collins concocts a serviceable Manhattan for $8.50, even though he declines to make it with premium Woodford Reserve bourbon. “That’s just a waste,” he says.
Looking down the 55-foot long original mahogany bar, you’re likely to see patrons who call Old Town their local, among them fashion photographer Christian Di Lalla, a regular since 1994.
The bar reminds him of a Viennese watering hole during the time of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. “It’s like walking into a Picasso painting,” Di Lalla added, sipping straight gin on the rocks.
Dating from 1892, the barroom has beautiful orange and green tulip-shaped lamps, original tile floors and a tin ceiling turned brown from decades of cigarette smoke.
Hunt for Hooch
A block south, Rye House picked up the current revivalist trend of sophisticated cocktail mixing, offering an impressive drinks menu with more than 175 kinds of alcohol. The bar is only two years old but bespeaks another time with an atmosphere that’s dark and loud and young.
The list concentrates on American brands and is heavy on whiskey, like Blanton’s, a Kentucky bourbon, that legally produced medicinal alcohol throughout Prohibition, and Templeton Rye from Iowa, that produced illegally.
The spirits menu also includes legal moonshine. When asked for a cocktail using it, the bartender made a variation of a Brooklyn cocktail called “The Gentleman” for $17, made with Kings County moonshine instead of rye, and a spoon of Demerara sugar for flavor. (Recipe follows.)
A manager at Rye House, Choun Yeh, who cultivated a taste for whiskey in the Navy, says double-pot distilling makes Kings County smoother. When his clientele wants hooch they usually go for the bite of Buffalo Trace White Dog, neat for $9, which is bottled at 120 proof.
Asked for a taste of another kind of white lightning, he pulled down a bottle of Catdaddy Carolina Moonshine, the bar’s go-to freebie for good customers.
Catdaddy has a sweet licorice flavor but with a kick. Named after a popular Prohibition-era term, their website says “only the best moonshine earned the right to be called ‘the catdaddy.’”
--Editors: Jeremy Gerard, Daniel Billy.
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