Best of Madison: Prohibition era cocktails then and now

The 1920s were an era defined by Prohibition.
bottle of Queen Jennie along with three cocktails

The 1920s were an era defined by Prohibition, which went into effect on Jan. 17, 1920, and continued until Dec. 5, 1933. Like many other cities, Madison was a place where breweries would create “near beer” and people would smuggle liquor into the city. There were speakeasies throughout the city, some on State Street, some on the east side and some on the outskirts of town, according to Madison historian Stu Levitan. Many people have identified Prohibition as the start of the modern craft cocktail movement.

This year’s winners for best distillery make spirits that connect them with the 1920s. Wollersheim Distillery creates Garden Gate Gin, a dramatic step up from the bathtub gin of the era. Gin was one of the most popular spirits during Prohibition, and Wollersheim’s variety is a standout made with locally grown wheat and botanicals like chamomile, rosemary, lemongrass and lavender. Old Sugar Distillery distills Queen Jennie Sorghum Whiskey (pictured below with a couple drink offerings) in honor of a famous bootlegger, Jennie Justo. Justo was known as the “Queen of Bootleggers” and was just one individual who kept liquor flowing in the streets of Madison. J. Henry & Sons’ specialty, bourbon whiskey, was not as popular in the 1920s because distillers couldn’t risk aging whiskey. Today, the aging process gives J. Henry & Sons’ products a complex flavor. All of its bourbons are aged for a minimum of five years in charred oak barrels.

yellow cocktail being held in her hand

Old Sugar Distillery makes its own rendition of a Sazerac. (Photo by Patrick Stutz)

Like spirits, some of the most classic cocktails were created during the 1920s, and this year’s best bars for cocktails are still serving up these beverages. You can find drinks like French 75, The Mary Pickford and sidecar on Merchant’s drink menu. The gold winner has 50 classic cocktails, and many, like the ones listed, have roots in the 1920s, especially on the gin menu. At Avenue Club and The Bubble Up Bar, you can try a classic Old-Fashioned like they made at the speakeasies. “The Throwback” with Redemption Rye, simple syrup, bitters, rocks and orange peel garnish is as close as it comes to the original. While State Line Distillery puts its unique spin on cocktails using in-house spirits, its bartenders in the taproom also know how to make an old-school drink. If gin drinks aren’t for you, try a daiquiri with rum and lime — rumor has it these drinks were favored by Ernest Hemingway.