Lost Recipes of Prohibition: Notes from A Bootlegger’s Manual

When I was writing my book, A Jazz Age Murder in Northwest Indiana (History Press), about Nettie Diamond, a wealthy widow and pharmacist who was murdered by her fifth husband, a much younger bootlegger named Harry in Indiana Harbor on Valentine’s Day 1923, one of the things I learned was that it was relatively easy to get a permit during Prohibition to buy medicinal alcohol and distribute it.

That may be why I’m finding a new book, Lost Recipes of Prohibition: Notes from A Bootlegger’s Manual by Matthew Rowley (The Countryman Press 2015; $27.95) to be a fascinating read.

Rowley, who describes himself as specializing in folk distilling and the manufacture and distribution of illicit spirits, was given an old book titled The Candle and The Flame, The Work of George Sylvester Viereck. The interior didn’t contain any poems by Viereck, a popular poet up until his pro-German sensibilities during World War I made him a pariah in the U.S. Instead, the book’s once blank pages contained a plethora of handwritten distilled spirit recipes procured and preserved by a New York pharmacist named Victor Alfred Lyon.

As for Harry, he wasn’t supposed to sell alcohol for non-medicinal purposes like he did—by adding real spirit company labels to his own bottles…but that was Harry who also.  According to Rowley, many pharmacists made alcoholic concoctions to help ailing (or just plain thirsty) customers and many distilleries were allowed to continue to operate to provide product. Rowley points out that during Prohibition, the sale of sacramental wine went sky high as people suddenly became much more religious.

Lyon’s recipes were collected from a variety of sources and at the time he was gathering them, some were a century or so old. Rowley organized the recipes in chapters such as Absinthe, Cordials, and Bitters and Gin; Compounding Spirits and Gin, Whiskey and Rum.

Less a cookbook than a history and how-to of spirit making, Rowley does include many of Lyon’s recipes from a simple cocktail that silent screen movie star Mary Pickford enjoyed to the complex (and supersized) such as one for Rumessenz which calls for gallons of ingredients and was used by wholesalers, barkeepers, importers and exporters to make an essence of rum they could use for adding the aroma and tastes of rum to a batch of plain alcohol creating a higher profit margin.  That’s similar to what Harry Diamond did as well and at his trial he told the court he made about $20,000 a month from bootlegging.

Here’s one of the book’s recipes.

Lanizet: Sour Mash Cajun Anisette

3 quarts water

25 ounces sugar

½ teaspoon anise oil

½ tablespoon vanilla extract

½ teaspoon red food coloring

3 cups bourbon or Tennessee whiskey

5 to 7 pounds ice

Pour 1 ½ quarts of the water in a medium stockpot. Note the depth of the liquid. Later, you will boil the syrup to this height. For now, pour in the remaining water and all the sugar. Bring to a boil, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Lower the heat and simmer until the liquid reduces to 1 ½ quarts, 50 or 60 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat.

While the syrup is simmering, sterilize five new or well-scrubbed 1-pint canning jars in a deep pot or canning pot. Leave the jars in the hot water until you’re ready to use them. Wash and boil the lids and rings according to the manufacturer’s directions.

When the syrup reaches that 1.5-lquart mark, turn off the heat and remove the pot from heat. Stir in the anise oil, vanilla and food coloring until thoroughly mixed, then stir in the whiskey. Remove the jars from their hot water bath with tongs. Place the jars (don’t touch with your bare hands) on a wooden surface or folded towels and immediately pour the crimson liquid into the jars up to 1⁄2 inch from the tops. Wipe any dribbles or spills from the rims with a clean, damp cloth and place hot lids on top with sealing compound down; screw on the metal rings firmly but not too tightly.

Line your sink with a damp dish towel; it will prevent the hot jars from breaking when they touch the cool surface. Immediately place the jars upright in the sink, then slowly fill it with cool tap water so it covers the jars. As the jars cool, you’ll hear a series of metallic pops and pings; that’s a vacuum forming in each jar. When the jars are cool to the touch, after 5 to 10 minutes, place them upright in a tub of ice, with ice to top off the jars, to cool the anisette as quickly as possible. Once contents of jars are well chilled, about 1 hour, remove the jars from the ice. Label and date the jars, then store upright in a cool, dark place.

Yield: 5 pints

From Lost Recipes of Prohibition.

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The Death of Mrs. Westaway: A New Psychological Thriller by Ruth Ware

Tarot cards, a threatening stranger and a mysterious will propel Hal, a young vulnerable orphan to spend her remaining cash for a railway ticket to the funeral of a woman who solicitors believe is her grandmother. Hal, who makes her precarious living reading Tarot cards, a skill she learned from her mother who was killed in a hit-and-run a few years earlier, thinks she knows better. But still, when she receives a letter indicating she is an heir to the moneyed estate, she decides to see if the same skills she uses to tell fortunes can help obtain part of her “inheritance.”

Atmospheric and compelling, The Death of Mrs. Westaway (Gallery/Scout Press $26.99; 2018), is the fourth novel of English author Ruth Ware, author of the best- selling The Woman in Cabin 10 and The Lying Game.

Ware, who is on a book tour throughout the  United States, took time out to answer the following questions.Author Photo - Ruth Ware c Gemma Day

What inspired you to write The Death of Mrs. Westaway?

I can’t put my finger on one single inspiration, but probably the key thing that defines the book for me is Hal. Having written three books about women who stumble into events more or less through no fault of their own, I wanted to write a very different kind of main character this time round – one who brings the events of the novel down upon themselves. Hal sets out to commit a crime – and in doing so sets of a nightmarish set of dominoes. That was a very conscious choice on my part!

Were you familiar with Tarot cards before you wrote this book or did you have to learn about them? And why did you decide to make them part of the story? In that vein, have you always had an interest in fortune telling?

I’m super skeptical and don’t really believe in any kind of supernatural forces so I had never had my cards read, though of course I was familiar with some of the images on tarot cards and found them very beautiful and inspiring as visual images. I had to research the meanings from scratch as I knew nothing about fortune telling, or the different kinds of tarot spreads. I really enjoyed the research though and found myself quite swept up in the different meanings. I suppose I made them part of the story because I wanted Hal to be someone who was practiced in reading people and telling them what they wanted to hear. So I tried to give her a job that fitted with that and was in some way a preparation. Making her a cynical tarot reader – one who doesn’t believe in the power of the cards but uses her skills to deceive – seemed fitting.

Your books create such a sense of foreboding–do you ever get caught up in that and experience those feelings?

Of course! Writing is like reading – you get just as caught up in the atmosphere you’re creating. But I find it’s quite hard to scare myself when I’m writing, because I know when the jump scares are going to come. I get immersed in the atmosphere, but the sense of terror I get sometimes reading other writers’ work just isn’t there, because I’m in control.

Do you plot your novels and your characters or do they evolve?

A mix of the two – I usually have a skeleton structure in my head, and I think about the characters for a long time before I start writing, so they are usually quite evolved by the time I put pen to paper. But I write very little down – they exist mainly in my head so they tend to be quite fluid and evolve as things develop on the page.

What writers have influenced you?

For this book, particularly Daphne du Maurier. I love her work.

What’s next for you? 

Another book of course! I’m writing it now, but it’s too early to tell you what it’s about…

Ifyougo:

What: Ruth Ware

When: Monday, June 4th at 7 p.m.

Where: Anderson’s Bookshop, 26 S La Grange Rd., La Grange, IL

FYI: This event is free and open to the public. To join the signing line, please purchase the author’s latest book, The Death of Mrs. Westaway, from Anderson’s Bookshop. To purchase please stop into or call Anderson’s Bookshop La Grange (708) 582-6353.