One Nation, Under Cocktails | Food | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

One Nation, Under Cocktails

On Election Night -- whether for celebration or consolation -- plenty of us mixed booze and politics. It's an American right that's virtually guaranteed by our Constitution (see "Amendments," No. 21).

Amid the chattering about a potential "new New Deal," I hit the history books this week -- that is to say, my small library of vintage drinking guides, shelved near my other oft-neglected collection of barely used spirits, cordials and other non-beer potions. 

Why keep bar guides if one never even knocks the dust of that bottle of cheap Mexican brandy? Because reading them is a heady joy, not unlike the sensation one imagines delivered by the long-forgotten Third Degree cocktail. They are a vicarious journey into an era when alcohol and its consumption was fun, flirty and fairly giddy with innumerable combinations. 

And as politics seem inescapable from the discussion of liquor, two of my favorite guides happen to straddle that momentous day in 1933 when Prohibition was repealed.

From the extra-dry days of the Hoover administration comes The Art of Home Bartending (1931). The discreetly worded title suggests that this is a vocation best left to professionals -- if only. Hence, its dedication to "the good old days ... [when] you could drown your sorrows on every corner." 

Understandably, the booklet doesn't offer suggestions for home bartenders on acquiring the illegal liquids needed to mix such eyebrow-raising libations as "The Poor Man's Cocktail" (equal portions gin and crème de menthe over ice).

Emerging from the darkness is 1933's The Merry Mixer, or Cocktails and Their Ilk: A Booklet on Mixtures and Mulches, Fizzes and Whizzes. This slim volume was published by legitimate purveyor Jos. S. Finch and Co. to celebrate the return of brand-name boozing, under "the full protection of the government." (The repeal of Prohibition was a plank in the 1932 Democratic platform.)

An opening glossary reflects the good-humor of the imbibing gentleman: Of crème de menthe, it writes: "Although its voltage hovers round 35 [percent alcohol], it is a favorite with the ingenues ... because mint sounds harmless. Vodka is described as "Russian for 'horrendous,'" and those seeking more background on gin are directed to "the harrowing story of Rip Van Winkle."

It's also in these ancient tomes that one find recipes for enjoying Western Pennsylvania's contribution to the relaxed state -- rye whiskey, a forgotten spirit just now making a comeback among the small-batchers. After months of swing-state fatigue, surely it's time for all Keystoners to come together convivially -- ideally with a round of Ward Eights.

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