The History of Booze

Back in time for Drinks

The Roaring 20s,

Flappers and Cocktails

This idea blossomed from a family discussion over Christmas about our relatives’ favourite tipples going back over the generations. So we thought we would kick off the series going back to the 1920s. My grandparents were just kids, but my parents could still recall conversations with them
about the drinks of the day.

It the start of the 1920s, the end of World War One was only a couple of years in the past, but very quickly dawned the era of ‘The Roaring Twenties’ as victory brought prosperity. In a rather perverse manner (but one that is still true of war today) there were those who had made vast fortunes thanks to the Great War. If you were a member of the aristocracy or the new wealthier classes, those who made good on the manufacture of goods for the war, then times had never been better. ‘The Bright Young Things’ (BYT) partied the 1920s away in cocktail and jazz bars. This was not the life of the many, but only for the privileged few. There is an argument that this young generation felt a great sense of guilt that they were still alive when so many had lost their lives and that they had to live their lives in the fast lane, not just for themselves, but for those who had been robbed of their youth. We can get a good sense of what these times must have been like from the novels of P.G. Wodehouse and Nancy Mitford, especially as Nancy was a BYT herself. 

The famous image of the flapper emerges, due in most part to the emancipation of women. As women stepped into the roles of men during the war, it left many of them feeling greatly empowered and definitely more confident. This was reflected in the fashions of the time - hemlines were rising, a boyish straighter figure emerged, and women began to smoke, drink and drive - how outrageous!  Their wild child behaviour signalled the era of the ‘flapper’.  We have an old family photo of a great-great-great aunt, wearing a flapper dress in one of those highly posed images of the time, looking enigmatically into the camera. The story goes that she fell in love with a mandolin player and ran off with him (how romantic) only to be jilted. I guess it wasn’t happily ever after for all in the 1920s.

Reality check; if you were a married woman and not one of the BYT, then life didn’t really change very much. Families got smaller and children got to stay in education until they were 14 and what’s more it was free.

The post war boom was over by the mid 1920s and life got tough for everybody, except for the middle and upper classes and uber rich. With high interest rates, importing coal and new mass production, enter stage left deflation, depression (and not just the financial variety), unemployment and poverty. We were heading into the Great Depression, but more of that next month.

Dig into the history of popular drinks in the 1920s and you will find that many of the most famous cocktails of the era came from America. Despite Prohibition halting the sale of legal alcohol, the bootleggers ensured that the booze still flowed. They not only influenced the drinks of the time, but remain influential today. Sarah Henry, chief curator of the Museum of the City of New York, said after exhaustive research in preparation for the Museum opening a speak-easy:  “I was personally surprised by how familiar so many of the drinks were.”  For example, absinthe has experienced a resurgence and the mojito never seems to have lost its popularity.

The rise of the cocktail in this period was partly due to the fact that bootleg booze tasted so awful, you had to mix it with other things to make it palatable. The other reasons for the growth of the cocktail was to disguise it so it would appear to be an innocent non-alcoholic beverage if you were raided. As far as bootlegging goes, apparently gin was remarkably simple to make, compared to whiskey, which had to be aged. 


The Bronx was a popular gin based drink.


30ml Gin

15ml Sweet red vermouth

10ml Dry vermouth

15ml Orange juice


Pour everything into a cocktail shaker, shake well and strain in chilled cocktail or martini glasses.


If you picture the speak-easy, you probably imagine dancing girls, big bands, gambling and fancy glasses. These did exist, but were not for the majority. You were more likely to end up in a dive being served ‘bathtub gin’ as it was then known - we are definitely not referring to the gorgeous Bathtub Gin produced today. This stuff was not actually made in bathtubs  (I was so disappointed to find this out - the image works so well) it was to do with the fact that the jugs they used didn’t fit in the sink, so they used the bathtub taps instead - see, now it doesn’t have the same feel at all.


Bees Knees

Given the somewhat rough nature of bathtub gin, the Bee’s Knees was probably concocted to drown the harsh flavour with super sweet honey. Here’s a modern twist of the 1920s’ version.


60ml Gin

1 teaspoon of runny honey 

15ml lemon juice



Mix all ingredients together in a cocktail shaker, strain and enjoy.  You can add a touch of sugar to the edge of the cocktail glass by dipping in orange juice and then into a saucer of sugar. Finally garnish with a twist of lemon.

Rum was very popular at this time and smugglers would bring in rum from Mexico, Cuba and Puerto Rico.  Between the Sheets was popular with the BYTs; a cocktail consisting of white rum, cognac, triple sec, and lemon juice, which was a twist on the classic Sidecar,

Between the Sheets

30ml white rum

30ml triple sec

30ml brandy

15ml fresh lemon juice



Nice and easy - put all the ingredients into a cocktail shaker - shake, pour, garnish with a twist of lemon and enjoy. The great thing with this cocktail is that you can give it your own personal twist by selecting one of the many varieties of rum available, or play with the brandy. You could try it with a cherry brandy, for example.

There are plenty more cocktails from the 1920s for you to explore, but we have given you the rough guide, but before we sign off, there is one drink that we have to tell you about, but will not be recommending that you try. Energy drinks have been all the rage for a number of years, but in the 1920s, there was an energy drink that actually contained radium. At the time, there was an almost obsessional interest in radium and there were even those who believed the element had magical properties. Most of us will remember from our chemistry lessons that radium was discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1898. Sadly, its dangerous nature was not fully understood until the 1930s, when people began to die from radium related conditions. If you think that consuming one too many energy drinks is not healthy, then meet ‘RadiThor’ which was produced between 1918-1928 by the Bailey Radium Laboratories in East New Jersey. Stunningly simple, it contained unbelievable quantities of radium dissolved in water. The drink was said to be completely harmless and acted as a strong painkiller. The most famous case of death from ‘RadiThor’ was, Eben McBurney Byers, a wealthy and prominent American industrialist. When he died, his body was so contaminated by radium that he was buried in a thick lead coffin in order to prevent him contaminating the surrounding ground. I don’t think this is a drinks trend that will be making a come back!