Equal parts history, chemistry and alcohol make a delicious formula for an entertaining read. You don’t need to love drinking to enjoy Lost Recipes of Prohibition: Notes from a Bootlegger’s Manual (Countryman Press, October 28 2015). The new book from noted whiskey enthusiast and author Matthew Rowley was inspired by a notebook of illegal liquor recipes from the 1920s, Rowley’s annotations add depth and candor to an already fascinating historical artifact.
Popular television shows set during the period, such as HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and Netflix’s Peaky Blinders, tend to tell a somewhat glamorized tale about the crime organized around alcohol production and smuggling during Prohibition. However, in Lost Recipes of Prohibition, the booze itself is the star of the story, as Rowley only gives a few details about the mysterious life of the lost notebook’s owner, pharmacist-turned-bootlegger Victor Lyon. Rowley devotes a chapter explaining the historical tides surrounding the Prohibition era, but spends the majority of the book discussing the actual processes used to create illicit alcohol and the various ways bootleggers attempted to make their alcohol taste like the “real stuff.”
Weird ingredients, unique chemical reactions and specialized systems of measurement are made easily understandable by Rowley, who clearly loves the history surrounding Lost Recipes of Prohibition as much as he loves the recipes themselves. One standout section of the book is the sub-chapter on absinthe, where Rowley’s discussion of the highly controversial beverage is myth-busting, hilarious and informative.
The best part of Lost Recipes of Prohibition is the cocktail recipes and formulas. It’s a treat to flip through this book and imagine people in speakeasies actually drinking these hilariously named concoctions. It’s even more of a treat to drink them yourself. Some notable cocktails include the “Monkey Gland,” a gin and absinthe drink named after a testicular surgical procedure common in the 20s, and the “Twelve Mile Limit,” a lemony whiskey drink named after the distance sailors could go out to sea in order to be out of America’s dry legal jurisdiction.
Whether or not you’re drinking your way through the book, topics like history and chemistry are a lot more interesting when crime and liquor are involved and Rowley writes about them with informative flair.