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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Al Capone’s Beer Wars: A Complete History of Organized Crime in Chicago during Prohibition

Prohibition in Chicago was the ultimate business opportunity for the violent men who made up the many gangs who fought to control alcohol as well as narcotics, gambling, labor and business racketeering and prostitution in the city. And while there were turf wars during Prohibition in many American cities, Chicago was the bloodiest of all.

“The apex of the violence in Chicago was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre where seven men were killed,” says John J. Binder, author of  (Prometheus Books 2017; $25). “That was a record. In any other city, there were never more than two or three gang murders at one time.”

Chicago at that time was almost completely lawless and these mobsters thought they were untouchable says Binder, adding that gangsters like Al Capone even gave interviews which added to Chicago’s reputation as did the way they did business including machine guns, drive-by shootings.

Binder, who has been writing about organized crime for more than 25 years, is an Associate Professor Emeritus of Finance in the College of Business at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His background in business and finance is perfect for writing what is the first complete history of organized crime in Chicago during Prohibition because after all it is a business.

“The sole goal of organized crime is to enrich their members,” says Binder. “Sure, they’re violent and sure they kill each other, it’s useful in running the business. But the goal was to make money.”

While legendary figures like Al Capone have taken on almost mythical status, Binder says that many books don’t even cover some of the other 12 gangs who were major bootleggers in Chicago at the start of Prohibition.

“A lot of books about Prohibition in Chicago just cover the same thing,” he says, noting that five years of research went into his book.

The Chicago mobs’ reach also extended into Northwest Indiana says Binder who will be conducting a tour of Prohibition sites.

“The Canadian Whiskey Superhighway ran from Detroit through Gary to Chicago,” he says.

Ifyougo:

What: Talk and book signing

When: Tuesday, Oct. 10; 6 p.m. reception, 7 p.m. program

Where: Chicago History Museum, 1601 North Clark Street, Chicago, Illinois

Cost: $25, $20 members; cash bar available

FYI: 312-642-4600

What: Author and historian John J. Binder leads an in-depth tour of Chicago’s Prohibition and related crime history.

When: Saturday, October 14 at 1 p.m.

Where: Tour begins at the Chicago History Museum, 1601 North Clark Street, Chicago, Illinois

Cost: $55, $45 members; tour runs 3.5 to 4 hours

FYI: 312-642-4600