NY Kitchen in Canandaigua celebrated the anniversary of the end of Prohibition.
CANANDAIGUA — Take a retired U.S. history and government teacher, add a bartender who loves researching and making classic cocktails almost as much as he loves talking with people, stir in an old-style martini and classic Jack Rose drink, and shake it up with the 85th anniversary of the ending of Prohibition in America.
What do you get?
All sorts of discussions on the fascination of this era in U.S. history, the resurgence of classic drinks in the cocktail culture of today, and the fun that can be had by mixing and experimenting with these drinks.
In other words, an atmosphere enabling visitors at NY Kitchen on Dec. 5 — the actual anniversary — to speak easy.
NY Kitchen hosted the special evening, offering Prohibitio-era cocktails such as the Bees Knees, made with gin, honey and lemon, and the Jack Rose, made with applejack whiskey, grenadine and lemon.
That’s what prompted Jean Lazeroff, who taught at Rush-Henrietta, and Cindy Garcia, who works two days a week at the NY Kitchen, to stop by.
“As a history teacher, I always love celebrating a historical event,” Lazeroff said.
And bartender Rob Stanfield is happy to help.
Stanfield, who now lives in Victor, has been in the restaurant industry since 1977 and has been bartending since 1985. He’s been here for close to seven years, he said.
Along the way, he has been researching the history of the classic cocktail, finding more about ingredients both obscure and rare — or old and ancient, he laughed.
It may be coincidence, he said, that the growth of the internet and a burgeoning classic cocktail culture have come hand in hand.
“The explosion of the craft cocktail, for me, is pretty much historical,” Stanfield said. “I love history.”
Or maybe it’s not such a coincidental combination after all.
Old cocktail manuals from the 1850s to 1920s — “great eras of the cocktail,” he said — are being resurrected and posted online. He’s purchased a 1950s-era drink manual from the old five-star Savoy Hotel in London.
And he’s inspired.
The mixed drinks of today are so sugar saturated that it’s made them boring to the taste, Stanfield said. Bitters — many of the flavors still made at the Rochester-based, four-generation family Fee Brothers business — and rye whiskey are becoming popular again.
“One of the great things about old, classic cocktails is that they deal with contrasts — sweet and bitterness,” Stanfield said. “That’s what I love about classic cocktails. There’s complexity and balance.”
And boy, did some Prohibition-era cocktails need it.
The 18th Amendment put Prohibition into practice and made the manufacturing, sale and transportation of alcohol illegal from 1920 to 1933. Some argue this is 100-proof positive the U.S. can get something wrong, but its repeal as a result of the 20th Amendment, ratified Dec. 5, 1933, proves the country can get back on the horse.
Like a good drink, the balance of the illegality and dangerousness of drinking on the sly, stories of Chicago gangster Al Capone and fed Eliot Ness, bootleggers and the G-man out to get his man, the stills of Appalachia, and “The Great Gatsby” all contributed to the mystique of the era, said Lazeroff, of Victor, which is why many Americans are so fascinated by it.
Lazeroff recalls hearing family stories about the illegal speakeasies of New York City, which served as clandestine spots where folks could drink.
“It was a fun era to teach,” Lazeroff said. “The kids were fascinated by it.”
Lazeroff theorizes that no one considered the unintended consequences of Prohibition — such as the flattening of the hops industry in Ontario County and other parts of New York, Lazeroff said.
Prohibition or not, people who had a taste for it were going to drink. “You have it, and then you don’t,” Garcia said.
And that led to creative ways of imbibing, such as the speakeasies, but also the illicit manufacture of bathtub gin. Such homemade concoctions were big, Stanfield said, because gin does not need to be aged like, say, good whiskey.
Some of these batches could even be fatal to drink, while others may have made you wish you were dead.
“The explosion of cocktails with honey and lemon was because the bathtub gin was so awful and so bad that it needed to be mixed together with stronger flavors to take away that bad odor of the ethanol,” Stanfield said.
Done right, though, and you have a martini that hits the spot — for history’s sake.
“Delicious,” Lazeroff said.
So a toast to history, artistic expression and, for a unique Stanfield twist, a bit of pageantry — why, celebrating the anniversary of the end of that era of American history can be seen as the bee’s knees, if you do it right.
With a cocktail that has a story that makes drinking it a worthy experience.
“There’s definitely a historic connection people have with cocktails,” Stanfield said.