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History: Holiday | Celebrating Repeal Day
Story by Lissa Townsend Rodgers
A top-shelf holiday
Repeal Day commemorates the official end of Prohibiton on Dec. 5, 1933. It’s become an increasingly popular celebration for liquor geeks, mixology buffs and anyone who enjoys a potent beverage. But, unlike New Year’s Eve or St. Patrick’s Day, it’s not about consuming mass quantities, but savoring the top shelf. Repeal Day also honors the glamour of the twenties: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Model-T Fords, Clara Bow and the Chrysler Building. “It’s one of the most iconic periods of American history,” says Michael Green, history professor at the College of Southern Nevada. “What better day than Repeal Day to celebrate our constitutional right to imbibe?”
And imbibe well. Prohibition didn’t stop Americans from drinking. It just changed the way they did it. After 38 states ratified the 18th Amendment, on Jan. 16, 1920, the nation’s vibrant cocktail culture perished overnight.
“Your good bartenders went to Europe and Cuba. They didn’t want to work at speakeasies. They wanted to practice their craft,” says Jeremy Merritt, mixologist at the Downtown Cocktail Room and Future Restaurant Group’s director of beverage and training. “After Prohibition, (a quality drink) wasn’t sought-after or elegant. Now you had burly characters pouring firewater.” Prohibition didn’t result in a teetotaler’s utopia — rather the reverse, with more people bingeing than ever before. Alcohol had always been slightly scandalous, but now it had an extra cachet. “It’s like that velvet rope — you can’t get in, so you want to get in,” Merritt says. “The elite had the booze. You had to have connections.”
Having to deal with questionable supply and shady characters meant the quality of liquor was usually inferior. Grenadine masked the questionable provenance of the rum in a Bacardi cocktail or the artificially colored whiskey in a Ward 8. Sometimes the loss of an ingredient meant the loss of a drink: The Aviation is a gin-based cocktail whose icy chill and faintly violet pallor evoked airplane flights and adventurous figures like Amelia Earhart and Howard Hughes. But Crème de Violette liqueur was an irreplaceable part of the flavor and color of the drink — and virtually impossible to get. Difficulty in procuring Absinthe impeded the making of a proper Sazerac. But both of those ingredients and their resultant concoctions have returned, as has the notion of mixing cocktails as a craft.
“Things were lost over that 13-year span,” Merritt says. “Just now, in the past decades, we’ve started to get back to it.”
Recipes: Pour your own
Getting the American people back into the swing of gracious imbibing after years of backroom swilling required a bit of guidance. Published in 1934, Harman “Barney” Burke’s Complete Cocktail & Drinking Recipes supplied plenty, from the Clover Club Cocktail (p. 19) and Puerto Rico Flip (p. 70) to “Ice, Amount to use” (p. 11) and “Gentleman, Drink like a” (p. 78). May we suggest two classics from his list of “The World’s Most Famous Cocktails”?
Bronx Cocktail No. 1
1 dry gin
Old Fashioned Cocktail
1 glass whiskey
Events: Where to toast
The Mob Museum
The Mob Museum’s Repeal Day party has been an annual occasion since the joint opened. It’s a Roaring ’20s-themed event sprawling throughout all three floors of the historic building. There will be live music and classic cocktails, and you’re encouraged to come in period attire. Last year, Oscar Goodman donned a fedora and pinstriped suit to smash a ritual bottle against an old bootlegger’s whiskey barrel — before taking up his ritual gin martini. (300 E. Stewart Ave., 229-2374)
Commonwealth has a vintage atmosphere — all sepia tones and crystal chandeliers — as well as an abundance of cocktails both sweet and dry to please every palate. But it also conceals Las Vegas’ only speakeasy, the Laundry Room: The red light should tip you off to the secret door in the wallpaper. It’s a small, narrow room hung with glamorous photos of fan dancers and chorus girls, with a bartender given to some intriguing alcohol improvisations. (525 E. Fremont St., 445-6400)
Downtown Cocktail Room
DCR often celebrates Repeal Day with drink specials and retro outfits, and the United States Bartenders’ Guild has sponsored the event in the past. You can celebrate with an era-appropriate Aviation or era-inspired T-Model Ford — or go even deeper into history and drip some absinthe. And the talented gentlemen behind the bar may have a few other surprises when the clock strikes midnight. (111 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 880-3696)
Herbs & Rye
The extensive and exhaustive drink menu includes a section devoted to the cocktails of Prohibition. The Blood & Sand was created in honor of silent screen heartthrob Rudolph Valentino, while the Leap Year originated at the American Bar in London’s Savoy Hotel, in the jigger and spoon of legendary expat bartender Harry Craddock. And the dim lighting and scarlet walls offer an old-school vibe. (3713 W. Sahara Ave., 982-8036)
Pick up your Desert Companion today at one of these Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf or Jamba Juice locations.
Also available at Clark County and Henderson libraries.