Bringing Back the Bad Old Days

By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, October 1, 2008; Page F05

The faux speak-easy trend has so oversaturated Manhattan that New York Magazine bloggers are referring to new "top-secret" bars that evoke the Prohibition era as "speakcheesies."

Here, we're a little behind. Sure, PX in Alexandria (above Eamonn's a Dublin Chipper; look for the blue light) was well ahead of the curve. But the District has just gotten its very first speak-easy project, Hummingbird to Mars. The name comes from a statement by Sen. Morris Sheppard, a famous Dry from Texas whose proudest accomplishment was that he helped write the 18th Amendment that ushered in Prohibition. Sheppard famously boasted: "There is as much chance of repealing the 18th Amendment as there is for a hummingbird to fly to the planet Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail." Of course he was wrong, and now we can drink in fake speak-easies instead of real ones.

As with any super-hush-hush speak-easy these days, the media were tipped off to Hummingbird to Mars's opening well in advance. Luckily, because Prohibition was repealed in 1933, no one's worried about the Feds busting up the place; they're more concerned about keeping out the, you know, bridge-and-tunnel crowd.

When I arrived, a few Sunday nights ago, I received a delicious glass of Delaware Fisherman's Punch (rum, cognac, lemon and lime juice, honey syrup and grated nutmeg). And also this note: "Welcome to Hummingbird to Mars and thank you for finding us. By accepting a reservation you must agree to certain terms and any infraction will cause you to be unwelcome at our establishment.

"1. If you are a member of the press/blogger/other media type person you are not permitted to write about our location or our operation in any way shape or form.

"2. You are not allowed to disclose our address to anyone.

"3. You may not take any photographs of the inside or outside of our bars.

"4. Cellphone use will not be permitted within the establishment."

Naturally, the first thing I did was send a text message to a friend (along with a photo of the bar) that read, "You should come over to [Popular Bar Named After a Whiskey Made in Kentucky], in Adams Morgan. We're upstairs."


In fact, Hummingbird to Mars will move around from place to place and will operate only on Sunday and Monday nights. And the drinks are superb. Derek Brown of Komi and Owen Thomson of Bourbon, gussied up in vests and ties, mixed up classics such as the Corpse Reviver (gin, Cointreau, Lillet Blanc and absinthe) and the Blood and Sand (blended scotch, Cherry Heering, orange juice and sweet vermouth), which share the menu with such new creations as the Philly Sling (applejack, sloe gin, lemon juice, bitters, simple syrup).

It was fun, but the whole speak-easy thing does prompt a question: Why this obsession with Prohibition among the cocktail crowd?

Answer: Why wouldn't we be obsessed? On Dec. 5 we will celebrate the 75th anniversary of Prohibition's repeal, and we're still living with the legacy of that failed experiment. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United states, 15 states continue to ban Sunday liquor sales (as does the District of Columbia), and hundreds of "dry" counties throughout the nation restrict or prohibit sales.

Prohibition basically destroyed the craft of bartending, making the profession illegal and forcing bartenders into other lines of work. And make no mistake: Bartenders prior to Prohibition were viewed as craftsmen, akin to pastry chefs or cheesemakers or chocolatiers. Whether the puritans among us like it or not, cocktails are a traditional American foodway. But Prohibition irrevocably broke the cultural chain of bartending knowledge. Everything I rail about in this column could reasonably be blamed on that broken chain. Day-Glo, pre-made mixes: Blame it on Prohibition. Ridiculous vodka flavors: Blame it on Prohibition. Bartenders forgetting bitters in your Manhattan: Prohibition.

Only in the past few years have we begun to repair and restore pre-Prohibition bartending traditions. That's why many people are rediscovering old cocktail books. This past summer, for instance, Mud Puddle Books reissued beautiful replicas of several classic cocktail guides such as "Harry Johnson's New and Improved Bartender's Manual" (1882) and C.F. Lawlor's "The Mixicologist, or How to Mix All Kinds of Fancy Drinks" (1895).

Perhaps the most encouraging outgrowth of the classic-cocktail trend is the sudden availability of all sorts of cocktail bitters, staples of pre-Prohibition bartending that give classic drinks structure, body and complexity.

For years, the only variety most people could find was Angostura brand aromatic bitters. If you were really in the know, you might have a vial of Peychaud's bitters. Then, a few years ago, along came a revival of orange bitters such as Regan's. Now, the floodgates are open. Fee Brothers offers six different varieties, including lemon and mint, as well as a special whiskey-barrel-aged bitters that ups the ante on Angostura. (If your liquor store is not stocking Fee Brothers bitters, which are widely available, it is not a serious liquor store.) I've also recently tried a wonderful new line of bitters from a German company called the Bitter Truth; its aromatic bitters, too, are better than Angostura's and its unique celery bitters add an amazing kick to a bloody mary.

For the sake of such developments, I guess I can learn to live with a speak-easy or two.

Jason Wilson's column appears every other week. He can be reached at food@washpost.com.

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