On a river cruise steeped in history, Shandelle Battersby learns about the liquor of times gone by.
More than 100 years after Prohibition, the secret bar scene is thriving once again in the US — though these days speakeasies are more about quirky locations, hipster culture and hidden doorways than providing an outlet for alcohol's black market.
Onboard the S.S. Legacy, UnCruise's replica turn-of-the-century coastal steamer that sails in and out of Portland, Oregon, you'll find a more authentic experience in convincing surroundings where you can sample craft cocktails made with illicit or "medicinal" liquor available during the Prohibition era, and drinks popular from the years around it.
The cocktail list — "Remedies, Elixirs and Libations" — is themed to tie in with its heritage cruises on the Columbia and Snake rivers through Oregon and Washington in the Pacific Northwest. These seven-day journeys follow in the footsteps of pioneering explorers William Clark and Meriweather Lewis, who were sent on a voyage of discovery of the lands beyond the Missouri River by President Thomas Jefferson in 1804.
Indeed, the demon drink was an important part of the intrepid duo's adventure west — a good chunk of their comprehensive journal entries are devoted to the act of dishing out portions of grog to the men in their party for, well, any reason you can think of really. It was also an important part of their encounters with the many tribes of Native Americans they met along the way.
If Lewis and Clark were to pull up a stool at the Legacy's bar today, the drinks list in front of them would completely blow their minds. In fact, even a Sazerac — arguably the earliest known cocktail recipe recorded in the US — did not appear in bars in New Orleans until the mid-1800s, decades after the pair's triumphant return to Missouri in 1806. Still, you get the idea.
Developed by UnCruise sommelier and former bartender Chris Arora and director of product development Sue Rooney, this season the Legacy's drinks list rests in the hands of 25-year-old Mason Roberts, who, with his flat cap, waistcoat and bow-tie looks as if he's stepped right out of the Prohibition era.
Like all the UnCruise staff, Roberts is well-schooled in the history of the area and era. While he's whipping up drinks he chats away about the liquors that comprise his creations and how the Pacific Northwest was an early adopter of the Prohibition movement thanks to the strength of local suffragettes, the missionaries who were early residents and the teetotalling railway unions who carried more weight as the construction of the country's train network gathered force.
The Legacy's cocktail list is split in three: "Progressive Era" covers pre-1920 liquor; "Volstead Act" (named after the legislation that essentially banned booze in the US) takes care of the Prohibition years from 1920-33; and "Cullen-Harrison" (named for the act that allowed its sale again) features alcohol available after its abolition.
All ingredients featured are absolutely true to the era represented, and the Legacy's all-inclusive drinks policy means you can experiment with whatever takes your fancy or try brands of liquor you may never have heard of before. This presents a few welcome challenges for the bar staff, Arora says.
"There are certain beverages we don't offer, such as Bombay Sapphire and Tanqueray gins, and to alleviate that we bring on local liquors. So, if we can't find anything that fits the certain style of, say, that dry London gin, we'll find something that's local."
My post-Prohibition era Sunset Martini is one of the prettiest drinks I've ever ordered, thanks to the blood orange puree mixed with Oregon vodka, Grand Marnier and cranberry juice, and it tastes as good as it looks.
A few days later, during a walking tour of the Old Town neighbourhood of Portland, I learn how during Prohibition the corrupt local police force would make a show of smashing bottles of whiskey on the steps of the courthouse that were cunningly fitted with drainage systems and bathtubs to collect the grog underneath them. The liquor was then poured back into bottles and resold as "rotgut".
I think I'll stick to the Legacy's version of Prohibition, thanks.
Chris Arora's speakeasy picks in Seattle, Washington
A whiskey and bitters emporium with the Western Hemisphere's largest spirit collection at 3500 labels.
Bathtub Gin & Co: Located in the basement boiler room of an old hotel in Belltown.
Needle and Thread: The semi-secret bar at Tavern Law accessed via a bank vault either by reservation only or making the "right" phone call from the phone downstairs.
Further information: UnCruise's journeys along the Columbia and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest run from April to November.