The ‘20s are big in 2016.
Pseudo-speakeasies, modern burlesque and of course craft cocktails are the thing across Chicago’s nightlife.
We want to imagine ourselves hobnobbing with the Dil Picklers, dancing to Louis Armstrong all night at the Sunset Café. (We don’t picture ourselves getting shaken down for protection money or forced to use the colored person entrance to buildings, but Prohibition is far from the only era to get a romantic whitewashing.)
Being a person who knows actual history, I’m aware that most cocktails weren’t a sign of class and style so much as sugary attempts to stretch out what little booze they could get. And Ben Hecht fabricated many if not most of his 1001 Afternoons in Chicago stories, so feet of clay all around here, folks.
To slap your joy with the open palm of reality, I gathered several friends and forced them to try and rate two nasty, noxious and just-as-authentic-as-a-Sazerac Prohibition-era craft cocktails.
To one-third brandy add two-thirds Port Wine and the yolk of an egg. Sweeten with powdered sugar or syrup. “This baby will ‘hold you up’ no matter where you are going,” says Judge, Jr.
This drink comes from 1931’s “Dining in Chicago: An Intimate Guide” by John Drury. In it, Drury never explained who Judge, Jr., was or what “hold you up” means in this context but after tasting this mix of sugar, raw egg and the finest port the liquor store down the street offers, I think I can firmly say Judge Jr., Judge Sr. and possibly Judge III are in hell now.
Lisa: “Tastes like I could strip wallpaper with my breath.”
Nick: “It tastes like how I imagine every snake oil tonic sold in the 1920s.”
Drew: “I’ve had worse, though I can’t remember when.”
Benji: “Starts sweet, turns sour and weird. Malörty.”
But the line of the night goes to Devin (who also writes a really kickass blog you should all read).
Devin: “I think we can all agree everything was worse back then.”
Here’s your new thrill. Get ready. Take 3 tumblers of white rock or ginger ale. Three-quarter tumbler of Bicardi [sic.]. One-half of Grenadine. Juice of a large lemon and some sliced oranges and much ice. Mix well in pitcher and serve cold. We call this the Berries. It’s a snappy and serious minded drink for this weather, and it gives a lot of pleasure to the gang.
The Berries came from the inaugural issue of The Chicagoan, a 1920s Midwestern literati attempt to recreate the success of The New Yorker by basically making an almost identical yet crappier version of the magazine.
Gorgeous design (“not quite as good as The New Yorker in its heyday” is barely an insult), but uneven and, to my eyes, pretentious writing never really gelled with the rough-hewn cow town. It limped along from 1926 to 1935, still insisting well into the Depression that what people really wanted were stories about mink coats and polo matches.
The phrase “the berries,” as we know from Chicago’s The Flapper magazine, was slang for something great.
Here it’s used to mean a tooth-stabbingly sweet concoction I described as “Grenadine with a drink attached.”
Lisa: “That could be Capri Sun” and later “That’s what teenagers drink and then throw up and then think they’re drunk.”
Nick: “The Mike’s Hard Lemonade of the 1930s.”
Colleen: “That’s not bad. Sweet as shit.”
Benji: “Doesn’t make me want to kick a kitten like the other one.”
I never planned to try the Blue Blazer from 1930’s “The Savoy Cocktail Book,” as it includes line “ignite the Whisky with fire” and I want to get my security deposit back.
Nor do I plan to make wine and whiskey “mellow and mature” by electrocuting it, as 1928’s “Giggle Water” recommends.
Romanticizing ‘20s drinking is like romanticizing drinking when you’re 20. Sure you had fun, but it was more about where you were than the quality of what you could get your hands on at the time.
I do enjoy a good Whiskey Sour, and a well-made cocktail can be a thing of joy, but I would like to close this with a quote. Well, a quote and a swig of mouthwash because it’s been two days and I can still taste Yegg.
I’ve heard this attributed to H.L. Mencken and I’ve heard this attributed to Frank Sinatra, but here’s the line as I see fit to replicate it:
“A drink should have no more than two ingredients. Ice counts as an ingredient.”