“Everybody stay calm!” In the first days of December 1933, politicians all sounded like stewards on a foundering ship. It was evident that the repeal of Prohibition was mere days away from being ratified, and visions of unbridled havoc and drunken runamokery gripped the nation’s leaders.
Among those with deeply furrowed brows was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. On December 5, when Utah became the 36th state to ratify the 21st Amendment and Prohibition was formally repealed, FDR quickly issued a proclamation urging “greater temperance” across the land. “I trust in the good sense of the American people that they will not bring upon themselves the curse of excessive use of intoxicating liquors, to the detriment of health, morals, and social integrity.”
[According] to lore … [FDR] made the first legal Martini in 13 years, 10 months, and 19 days.
Whereupon, according to lore, FDR’s brow became unfurrowed and he made the first legal Martini in 13 years, 10 months, and 19 days.
Now let us consider this alleged “first” Martini. FDR issued the proclamation from the White House—he’d just returned from a vacation in Warm Springs, Georgia. But that drink wouldn’t have been technically legal—Prohibition didn’t officially end in the District of Columbia until the following March, when Congress finally worked out alcohol regulations and taxes for the district. (Shall we wade into the argument that the White House is a jurisdiction separate from D.C.? We shall not.)
While documentation about that first Martini is scant, the odds that it existed are high. Utah ratified the amendment at 5:32 p.m. Eastern time, conveniently in time for cocktail hour. And Roosevelt’s cocktail hours were legendary. He called it the “Children’s Hour,” when he assembled a group of trusted advisors in his White House study, just as the day’s work was drawing to a close. It was a time to catch up on the news of the day and make cutting and uncharitable marks about one’s political adversaries.
Once all were assembled in the study, he set about making Martinis—he appeared to enjoy the ritual of mixology and would have his favorite cocktail shaker brought in for the occasion. His Martinis were not wholly consistent, nor, in the words of some guests, entirely potable. The president “would add one ingredient after another to his cocktails,” recalled Sam Rosenmann, one of FDR’s speechwriters, in his memoir. “To my unpracticed eye he seemed to experiment on each occasion with a different percentage of vermouth, gin, and fruit juice.”
He added liqueurs when the mood struck him, and maybe some olive brine (giving rise to the legend that he’d invented the Dirty Martini). Sometimes he’d add a dash of absinthe, and sometimes he’d garnish with both lemon and olive. Even his grandson claimed FDR’s Martinis were “truly awful.”
For the art of sophisticated bartending had largely been lost—half a generation of Americans had grown up not knowing how to mix or even drink quality cocktails.
A dreadful Martini is perhaps the perfect cocktail to mark the historic occasion when drink returned to the land. For the art of sophisticated bartending had largely been lost—half a generation of Americans had grown up not knowing how to mix or even drink quality cocktails. At best, those coming of age under the dark spectre of Prohibition sipped adulterated spirits, often in watery highballs to mask the taste. For most, the goal of drinking during Prohibition was not to savor taste but to speed the process of inebriation.
It took time to coax drinkers back to their more civilized state. “Let the modern American who wishes to drink be made to know that he is starting from scratch,” warned H.G. Moody in the American Mercury in 1936, “that he has to acquire a form of culture to do the trick even half well.”
During Prohibition, many bartenders left the country to ply their trade in Europe or Cuba. Others moved on to other professions. So even before the 18th Amendment was repealed, efforts were underway to educate a fresh new cadre of bartenders. In Boston, for instance, the Bartenders’ Union held classes for about 50 trainees just days before Repeal. “Professor” Jack Kearney, one of the experienced bartenders leading the class, estimated that Boston had only 300 experienced bartenders, and thousands would be needed. “That’s why the union is rushing through a group of young men who will know the difference between a Tom Collins and a John Collins, and will be able to assist the old-timers who have never been able to forget the distinction.”
Kearney displayed 14 different styles of bar glasses and discussed what each was for. He astonished the class by showing how to flame an orange peel garnish. And Kearney taught how to make two Martinis, one with Old Tom gin and Italian vermouth, and one with dry gin and French vermouth, both with two dashes of orange bitters, stirred with a lump of ice and served with a stuffed olive. “Civilization is on its feet again,” proclaimed one New York restaurateur.
[Everybody] did indeed stay calm … perhaps because many Americans had been drinking all along, and Repeal was both formality and curiosity.
When FDR’s proclamation was read after the long drought ended, it seemed that the public did follow the president’s advice, and everybody did indeed stay calm—perhaps because spirits hadn’t quite made it to the shelves, and perhaps because many Americans had been drinking all along, and Repeal was both formality and curiosity. “I will have to go take a drink of water,” wrote columnist H.L. Mencken, “for the first time in three years.”
On December 6, the day after legal liquor began to flow in 20 states, an Associated Press headline reporting from New York seemed underwhelmed by the ribaldry: “No drunks on Broadway, no roisterers anywhere.”
Class, after all, was in session. It was time to learn how to drink again.