Charles Steadman of Jack's Grumpy Grouper on Prohibition, the Silver Age of Bartending, and U.S. Bartenders' Guild
It's important to love what you do for a living -- think about how many hours of your waking life you spend working (a lot, most likely).
Whether it's tech, education, journalism, or the restaurant industry, it's actually a good thing to be considered a geek.
When it comes to mixology, Jack's Grumpy Grouper managing partner Charles Steadman is just about as nerdy as they come (in a good way, obviously). He loves what he does and everything about the industry.
We chatted with the excitable restaurateur and tender of bar about the history of cocktails in the 20th century.
Clean Plate Charlie: When it comes to cocktails in the United States, the first thing that comes to mind is Prohibition. How did that affect the industry?
Steadman: At the time, everyone was drinking between 12 to 19 drinks a day. Leaders like the Flaglers, the Roosevelts, and the Vanderbilts could really handle their drink. Alcohol was still readily accessible with moonshine and bathtub gins, but a lot of the good stuff was being shipped from overseas. Prohibition had such a dynamic impact on not just drinking market, but the culture at the time. It was a really scandalous time with the whole 'Great Gatsby' era and bootleggers. The wealthy still had their classic cocktails through imported gin and scotch and whatever else. But, the poor were drinking dangerous bathtub gins and moonshines. Nothing was regulated; it was all make it, sell it, make it, sell it, and hopefully no one went blind or died as a result. It's like drinking really cheap vodka these days, you'll feel it the next day because of the impurities -- back then it wasn't even that good. People died.
Right before Prohibition, cocktails were really in vogue. How did the drinks change as a result?
Pre-prohibition, drinks were simple: water, bitters, sugar, spirits. It was all about quality and highlighting the quality of the spirit. It was a dynamic time when it came to straight bartending, the Silver Age of Bartending. That period has inspired our current 'Golden Age.' Drinks like the Sazerac, the Dark and Stormy, the Aviation, and the Old Fashioned are back now; they were developed back in the 1800s. When Prohibition hit, bartenders were out of a job. Many moved to Europe and we saw a boom in the European cocktail scene.
So, there was a focus on spirits before Prohibition. What happened afterwards?
For a long time gin was the spirit of choice. All through Prohibiton, we were trading with the Dutch and the English. After World War II and during the start of the Cold War, vodka and tiki cocktails became popular. Vodka was said to be flavorless and odorless -- we all know that's not true -- so, many were drinking it throughout the day. In the '50's vodka overtook gin in popularity and it never turned back around. Classic tiki cocktails were really popular with bartenders in the '50s as a result of servicemen coming back from overseas. But that was also the same period of canned fruit juices and things; that's trend has finally started to fade away from bartending.
Over the past decade or so, we've seen a huge resurgence of classic drinks. What happened?
Prohibtion culture is back in. We've embraced the speakeasy culture with concepts like PDT in New York; burlesque shows and Prohibition-themed parties are all over the place now. Jerry Thomas' (one of the first American bartenders to come up with a cocktail book in the 19th century) recipes have been "rediscovered." Just like micro brews a lot of small distilleries are popping up, creating small batch spirits. Piscos and cachacas are uptrending. Rye whiskey, the U.S. spirit -- George Washington made it -- is popular again. Apple Jack [an apple brandy that was popular during the colonial period] is coming back.
You're very involved in the United States Bartenders' Guild Palm Beach Chapter. What's that all about?
We have three tiers of membership for industry professionals, suppliers and distributors, and consumers. For industry people, we offer medical benefits. It's about education and awareness of new and old products; and it's a good resource for networking. But, for people who aren't in the industry who just like to make drinks at home are invited to get involved too. It's basically a cool drinking club. There are so many aspects to it, it's not just a bartenders association. It's like a going to a cooking class for drinks. Visit usbgpalmbeach.org.
Jack's Grumpy Grouper is located at 308 N. Dixie Highway in Lantana. Call 561-847-4158, or visit jacksgrumpygrouper.com.
Follow Sara Ventiera on Twitter, @saraventiera.
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