Book Review: Lost Recipes Of Prohibition
Anyone who does serious writing and research about alcohol and its history has been drawn over and over to the Prohibition Era (January 16, 1920 to December 5, 1933). The combination of the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act created a maze of regulations that was vastly more complex than just banning the sale of alcohol in the United States.
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Anyone who does serious writing and research about alcohol and its history has been drawn over and over to the Prohibition Era (January 16, 1920 to December 5, 1933).
The combination of the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act created a maze of regulations that was vastly more complex than just banning the sale of alcohol in the United States. People that could not obtain alcohol through legal loopholes like medical or religious dispensation were still able to get a nip of the hard stuff in establishments that ranged from dark holes in the wall to high-end hotel bars.
Orange County Sheriff’s deputies dumping illegal booze, Santa Ana, 3-31-1932 by Orange County Archives
Down The Drain
In the states, basic spirits were difficult enough to get hold of, and most cordials and aperitifs disappeared from the earth, for all intents and purposes. Dr. Victor Lyon, a German immigrant who lived in New York when the country dried out, saw an opportunity to utilize his skills as a chemist to help keep the good times rolling.
Desperate Times, Desperate Measures
While he was running a successful medical practice publicly, privately he was recording recipes that would mimic whiskey, rum, and other spirits that people at the time were demanding.
The secret book that he wrote ended up in the hands of another book lover and cocktail aficionado, Matthew Rowley.
The notebook that Matthew Rowley was handed, The Work of George Sylvester Viereck: The Candle and the Flame, was not what he was expecting when he cracked the cover.
What he found was the basis for his book Lost Recipes of Prohibition: Notes from a Bootlegger’s Manual ($27.95, 2015, The Countryman Press), a translation of the rambling notes left by Dr. Lyon into an organized story about how innocent liquids were transformed into illegal spirits and why.
Prescription for whiskey, Treasury Department National Archives
Books And History
Mr. Rowley has a little experience with the illicit liquor creation; his first book was a treatise on moonshine.
His second book starts with how this historical treasure was delivered to him and takes a winding journey through the recipes included and the history of how a book of that nature came into being.
It is obvious from the start of the book that Mr. Rowley is in love with books and history. It is his curiosity, and where it leads, that keeps the pages turning. The book starts with a rich history of the book itself and who wrote it.
We are given recipes for everything from toxic essence of rum (with copious notes and warnings as to why not to make it) to syrups and flavorings that fit well into the modern cocktail scene.
The sheer number of kümmel recipes in the book make me want to make a batch to experiment with. Resources are provided to find all of the oils and equipment needed for the safe experiments in the book. There are also modern and classic cocktail recipes that use the liqueurs that can be created.
All of these recipes are fit into a broader story of what was found in the notebook, and why Dr. Lyon would be interested in every one of the compounds he detailed.
Pulling the Threads Together
This book is not a casual look into a unique artifact from that time.
Dr. Lyon’s book is the backbone for the narrative; Mr. Rowley leads the reader over a wide landscape. It could be argued that it is too broad, and not everything is relevant to the subject. What do tiki drinks or the Oregon cocktail scene have to do with 1920s New York City?
There are places where the reader could feel lost while exploring some of the more detailed explanations of absinthe varieties or the importance of manufacturing bubbles in cocktails. Have no fear, all roads eventually lead back to the illicit notebook. It takes a little while to pull all the threads together to see the big picture, but the persistence is rewarded.
The Drunkard's Progress
The Drunkard’s Progress by Nathaniel Currier, Library of Congress
Chemistry and Cocktails
This is a brilliant book for anyone who wants a deep, extensive look at how chemistry was able to deliver the flavors and drinks they wanted without having access to the actual liquor.
The landscape Matthew Rowley creates stretches from the modern era and materials we have today to techniques used in 19th century apothecaries, tightly held together by an aged notebook scribbled in multiple languages. Lost Recipes of Prohibition: Notes from a Bootlegger’s Manual is a book that should be in the library of anyone who is curious about Prohibition and how it fits into the history of spirits.
Photo by Brian Petro
Lost Recipes of Prohibition
Professor Petro’s Grade: A- This is a book you could read several times and still find new information. Or new ways to apply the same information. His excitement peeling through the layers of Dr. Victor Lyon’s manual radiates from the pages of the book.