During the Prohibition Era in the US, enjoying a tipple was fashionable as ever. Despite the illegal manufacture and sale of alcohol, from 1919 to 1933 dark, smoky backroom parlours – often requiring a password on entry – made the experience all the more exciting.
Amanda Vallis

17 Sep 2012 - 2:27 PM  UPDATED 6 Sep 2013 - 9:31 AM

It’s no surprise, then, that well-known socialites and celebrities of the time were often associated with their drink of choice. In some instances, they were even awarded the honour of having a drink named after them. During Prohibition, huge amounts of alcohol were illegally smuggled in from Canada and abroad to ensure that bootleg establishments and personal liquor cabinets remained stocked. As alcohol became more expensive and harder to come by, it became a kind of status symbol that indicated a person had the means and money to source it. Members of high society would throw lavish "secret" parties where alcohol would flow. 

Award-winning bartender Evan Stanley from The Black Pearl in Melbourne says prohibition followed what is often described as 'the golden era’ for cocktails, when drinks like the Manhattan, the Martini and the Old Fashioned were invented to celebrate the taste and quality of the liquor. 'Prohibition was when you started having juices and syrups more in your cocktails which was to do with the palatability of the alcohol which was often home-made or cut with inferior products to make it go further," says Stanley. 'You took what you could get." There was, however, some legal manufacturing of alcohol. 'For example, there is a distillery in Kentucky called Buffalo Trace, and they were one of the few distilleries that survived from the pre-Prohibition because they were legally commissioned to produce medicinal whisky."

Another influence, notes Stanley, is that Prohibition was when you started seeing women in bars. 'The bars weren’t legal," he says, 'and it was very hard to regulate who was allowed in and who wasn’t, so it was when men and women started to drink together. A lot of customers these days, particularly men, think it’s a really girly way to drink, which is one of those disappointingly misinformed opinions because cocktails were really created in an era when men drank in bars and women didn’t."

Long before young women in the 1990s were ordering Cosmopolitans, speakeasy patrons were ordering cocktails to emulate their favourite stars. Next time you head out for a drink, skip the Cosmo and go for something old school. Or, if you intend to mix something up at home, take note of William Powell’s advice in the 1934 movie The Thin Man: "The important thing is the rhythm. Always have rhythm in your shaking. Now a Manhattan you always shake to fox-trot time, a Bronx to two-step time, a dry martini you always shake to waltz time."

The Greta Garbo

In the Prohibition Era part-talkie film Anna Christie (1930), Greta Garbo’s says, "Gimme a whisky. Ginger ale on the side. And don’t be stingy, baby." The cocktail named after the Swedish actress and international movie star is much softer than her famous on-screen order.

28 ml brandy
28 ml dry vermouth
28 ml orange juice
7 ml grenadine
dash of crème de menthe

Shake with ice and strain into a chilled highball glass.

Mary Pickford

Often referred to as "America’s Sweetheart" and "Little Mary", Pickford was Prohibition Era movie star royalty. This 1920s Cuban concoction remains a popular cocktail order today.

42 ml white rum
28 ml unsweetened pineapple juice
½ tsp grenadine

Stir well with ice, strain into chilled coupette glass and drop in a maraschino cherry.

The Douglas Fairbanks

A well-known American actor, director, screen writer, producer and husband of May Pickford, who’s career unfortunately declined with the introduction of the "talkies". This cocktail is a deviation from the classic martini and is not as well-known as the one named after his wife.

56 ml Plymouth gin
28 ml dry vermouth

Stir with ice, strain and serve in a martini glass.

The Charlie Chaplin

One of Charlie Chaplin’s most popular comedy acts involved him pretending to be drunk, so it makes sense that a cocktail was named after him. First invented at New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel, the cocktail remains popular to this day.

28 ml apricot brandy
28 ml sloe gin
28 ml fresh lime juice

Shake vigorously and strain in to a chilled martini or coupette glass. Garnish with lime peel.

The Marlene Dietrich

A German-American actress famous for reinventing herself throughout her career, Marlene Dietrich began as a stage actress in Berlin in the 1920s and later moved to the big screen. Apparently, she would suck on lemons to keep her facial muscles taut (hence the recommended garnish for this cocktail).

112 ml Canadian whisky
2 dashes of Angostura bitters
2 dashes of curaçao

Shake with ice cubes and serve on the rocks in a wine glass. Garnish with a wedge each of lemon and orange.

The Jean Harlow

Otherwise known as "the blonde bombshell", Jean Harlow was a popular 1930s film actress and renowned socialite. Harlow was said to be fond of this rum-based martini that was created in her honour.

56 ml white rum
56 ml sweet vermouth

Shake with ice and strain into a glass. Garnish with lemon peel.

The Ginger Rogers

Her famous dancing partner Fred Astaire didn’t have a cocktail named after him, but Rogers did! Sweetened by the apricot brandy and cut with lemon juice, this cocktail is a smooth way to enjoy a gin-based cocktail.

28 ml dry gin
28 ml dry vermouth
1 oz apricot brandy
4 dashes of lemon juice

Shake well with ice. Strain into a chilled martini or coupette glass.

Want to make classic 1920s cocktails at home? Stock up your liquor cabinet with Evan’s suggestions:

Boston shaker (glass + metal tin)
Bar spoon
Hawthorn strainer (strainer with metal spring)
Tea strainer (for double straining)
Julep strainer (round, silver, solid strainer)
Nice glassware to serve

Quality gin
Bowl of mixed citrus fruits
Sugar syrup (equal parts sugar to water)
Quality scotch whisky blend
Dry vermouth
Quality fruit liqueur e.g. créme de pêche, apricot brandy and Cointreau
Quality brandy

Evan’s picks

Australian Bars to enjoy classic 1920s cocktails

The Baxter Inn
Eau De Vie
Mojo Record Bar

The Black Pearl
The Everleigh
Eau De Vie

The Lark
The Bowery

Cushdy Cocktail Bar

Luxe Bar
Helvetica Bar

This article has been amended, as it previously misquoted Evan Stanley as stating classic cocktails, such as the Manhattan and Old Fashioned, were invented during Prohibition, when in fact they came before.