Lips that touch liquor: Celebrating the 90th anniversary of Repeal Day with Valley cocktail bars
|Published: 12-01-2023 1:09 PM
Grab your favorite drink and raise a toast on Dec. 5!
The 90th anniversary of Repeal Day, when the 18th Amendment that codified Prohibition was officially repealed, takes place this month. Without the 21st Amendment, the United States would still be in the dark age of alcohol, covering up bathtub booze with sweeteners and soda, sneaking into speak-easies and buying alcohol from the neighborhood gangsters.
Since the end of Prohibition on Dec. 5, 1933, Americans brought cocktails from the Carribean, Canada and Japan to local bars, adding new flavors to menus and building a repertoire of classics like the Manhattan, the daiquiri and the martini.
Here in the Valley, cocktail bars Gigantic, in Easthampton, and The Archives, in Amherst, share their secrets to creating fun and tasty concoctions to toast with on this most serious of holidays.
Ned King, owner of Gigantic, says all the best cocktails have already been made. There are a few exceptions to his rule, like the Cosmopolitan, invented in the 80s, but King prefers looking into the past for his cocktail inspiration rather than attempting to concoct the next cocktail craze.
“The Manhattans and martinis, there are variations on those drinks, but that formula doesn't get any more simple than that,” King said.
King’s interest in cocktails began in college while passing the time at his gas station job at the Stop and Shop on Route 9 with YouTube videos on the history of different cocktails. On a college-student budget, he walked next door to Liquors 44 and bought a bottle of alcohol each week to mix old recipes, and slowly became familiar with cocktail culture.
“It suddenly clicked for me that there was more to alcohol than what I had thought,” King said. “Being a traditional college student, you don’t think of alcohol as anything more than partying or a social thing.”
Gigantic’s decor and drinks reflects King’s same fascination with history that first hooked him into bartending. Portraits of U.S. Presidents break up the fake skulls of human ancestors. Rows and rows of antique alcohol from as early as 1916 line the shelves.
Gigantic’s Manhattan follows the classic cocktail’s recipe, mixing rye whiskey with sweet vermouth, and a dash of bitters. He adds Grand Marnier to sweeten the drink and add flavor while also calling back to the original recipe from the 1870s.
“You almost never find Grand Marnier in Manhattans, but in the turn of the century and when the Manhattan was invented in the 1870s … there was always a touch of something in there like an orange liquor,” King said. “I think as time goes on, some drinks have been simplified in the wrong way.”
King’s favorite drink to serve is the Mai Tai because he loves surprising people with the original recipe. He said the Tiki cocktail became overly complicated over time, opting to add various juices and nix the almond syrup. But King’s mix of Jamaican and Martinique rum with orange curaçao, lime juice and orgeat (an almond syrup) remains a popular drink during Gigantic’s Tiki Bar events.
“It’s my favorite cocktail and it’s one of my favorite things to make for people at the bar because everyone has a different idea of what a Mai Tai is when you make one, so it’s fun to make what's considered the original formula of that,” he said.
King takes a lot of inspiration from old formulas, but other cocktail bars in the Valley look to the new cocktail trends coming out of major cities.
Nick Martino, the lead bartender at The Archives, takes a page out of the New York City cocktail scene by adding a butter and sesame-fat wash to an Old Fashioned. To compliment the sesame, he switches the traditional rye whiskey for a Japanese one.
“There’s still new techniques all the time, and then also just access to new spirits that we didn’t have access to a decade ago or 20 years ago. It’s perpetually evolving: you try something new, then create something new,” Martino said.
The full kitchen at The Archives allows Martino to create any element used in modern cocktails from scratch. Shrubs, syrups, fat washes, infused alcohols and smoke spice up textbook drinks or lead to something completely new.
The drink Deeply Rooted, an autumn harvest-inspired drink from The Archive’s latest menu, uses a homemade carrot shrub, or vinegared syrup, with blanco tequila, bitter suze and orange juice adjusted with citric acid.
“We want the orange juice flavor and color, but you want it to be a little more tart. You can use citric acid to adjust orange juice to be the same acidity of lemon juice,” Martino said.
Martino originally learned about bartending from books. A former professional climber turned mixologist, he got his start at 10 Forward in Greenfield before coming to the Amherst speak-easy when it opened over a year ago.
“I got into bartending because it was really fun to make cocktails for people. It's a very easy way to make people happy,” Martino said. “As it turns out, people drink alcohol and then they’re having a good time.”
His favorite alcohol to work with is rum due to its versatility. Martino said other spirits, like whiskey or gin, share similar tasting notes, but rum’s flavor varies drastically depending on the location of origin.
Massachusetts, for instance, once had a thriving rum industry before Prohibition shut down the distilleries. At Gigantic, King displays one bottle of molasses-style rum from 1917 in his antique bottle collection.
“There used to be something called Medford rum, which was basically a category of rum that was specifically related to Massachusetts. We had something like 60 distilleries in Mass that produced rum at that time,” King said.
When Prohibition shut down U.S. distilleries, bartenders looked to the Caribbean Islands for drink inspiration. At The Archives, Martino serves an El Presidente, invented in Cuba during the 1920s. This rum martini combines white rum and vermouth with orange curaçao and a dash of grenadine.
Balance is key in cocktail culture. “You’re never gonna have one cocktail that checks all the boxes,” Martino said. “Within one individual cocktail, it just needs to be balanced and not too far in any direction on the bitter scale or the sweet scale or sour or boozey.”
However, King said beginner bartenders interested in their own Repeal Day cocktails should start simple.
“There is beauty in simplicity because if you can make something taste good with a few ingredients, that’s really the trick of a good cocktail,” he said.
Emilee Klein can be reached at email@example.com.