Lessons from the Prohibition Era: Reintroducing Quality Cocktails & a fresh look at profits behind the bar



Seventy-five years ago, during the Great Depression, Americans cheered and raised a glass to the repeal of prohibition.  Largely viewed as a huge flop — considering that as soon as Congress banned the sale and service of alcohol, consumption rose to record levels (though just how much it increased is tough to judge as “gangsters”  didn’t find it prudent to report their sales to the government) — there are lessons to be  learned from the “noble experiment,” which  can be applied to the recession we face today.


During the Great Depression, with expendable income on the decline, people did not slow their drinking; rather, they started drinking more. With the sudden rise in demand for spirits, consumers turned to what was readily available — bathtub gins and whiskeys better suited to removing paint. To stay afloat, bartenders had to be creative. This led to the rise of the cocktail culture, when bartenders added seasonings and other beverages to mask the  taste of inferior spirits.

Today, with the downturn in the economy, the pressure on bars to attract and retain guests is steadily increasing. Uncertain of the financial future, consumers are cutting  out time spent at their favourite establishments. Like the early ‘30s, this is putting the imagination and technical knowledge of today’s bartenders to the test.

But how do you re-introduce the concept of quality cocktails during a recession, when guests have been programmed to enjoy drink menus often designed around speed of service and profit margins?

The first step is to ease consumers into it. A good way to do it is through a fresh cocktail night to introduce the concept to guests rather than force them into a more costly,  unfamiliar cocktail menu right off the bat.

While you may not want to dedicate one night specifically to fresh cocktails, work to create and feature a signature cocktail using fresh ingredients. Put a fresh spin on a

popular or classic drink, such as the Sidecar,  French 75, Manhattan or the Old Fashioned,  which were born out of prohibition using  inferior spirits that still warmed the soul.

Today, with much better ingredients available, your bar can capitalize on the recession by becoming memorable in cocktails.

The second step is to “dare to be different.” Much like guests, many bartenders have become accustomed to using syrup or powdered sweet and sour mixes and the thought of putting an egg in a cocktail is  sure to elicit a shudder or two from some.

While it’s important that we work to educate guests, bartenders may require just as much,  if not more, training on what a quality cocktail entails.

Creating an avant-garde drink list doesn’t necessarily require jumping into molecular mixology, bottling your own bitters or infusing spirits behind the bar. Rather, it involves a little effort and a few fresh, quality ingredients to get you — and your drinks noticed.

The final step is to commit to consistency. This involves everyone involved in cocktail preparation.

By following these three steps, you will reap the rewards during the recession.

However, it’s important to keep in mind these things take time. In the eight decades we’ve been “freely” serving cocktails since the repeal of prohibition, many people have long forgotten what quality is. A few good cocktails may be just what you need to take the edge off.

This entry was posted in Mixology, Proper Service. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.