1920s cocktails are just as famous as the Roaring Twenties themselves. It was a time of sweeping change, as society relished in the Industrial Revolution’s bounty while reeling from the horrors of the First World War. Social dynamics exploded. Women showed ankles, smoked cigarettes, and readily joined drinking culture by dancing through the night. Though Prohibition made alcohol technically illegal, speakeasies thrived, and writers imbibed while living to share their tales. To this day, the time period fascinates cultural aficionados.
Last year we delved into the new decade, the second coming of the 20s, and immediately gained about a million reasons to drink. But while the famous partygoers of yesteryear were forced to work around Prohibition’s restrictions, our current era is ripe for the sipping, with all manner of new innovations taking the alcohol industry by storm. Once you’ve mastered the modern classics, get back to basics by learning how to mix and serve these timeless 1920s cocktails.
Meanwhile, American bartenders fled to countries where they could practice their crafts in peace, leading to an influx of international cocktails that came to dominate the generation and make their mark in alcoholic history.
A Brief Background on American Prohibition
Prohibition went into effect at midnight on January 17th, 1920, making it illegal for American citizens to manufacture, transport, and sell alcohol, but not to drink it. Doctors could even still prescribe spirits like whiskey for medicinal purposes! As Food & Wine noted last year, on the 100th anniversary of Prohibition’s enactment, “The last days before Prohibition were a scramble to purchase every bottle in sight. The well-to-do had the means, connections, and physical space to buy up entire shops’ worth of wine or Scotch; the less well-off made their own way.”
Contrary to common sense, it was quite easy to get a drink during Prohibition thanks to prolific bootlegging and speakeasies. Determining a drink’s quality presented the true problem, as illicit and unlabeled alcohol brewed everywhere from Southern backwoods to the Caribbean maximized cost efficiency over safety and taste. Mixers became a staple in 1920s cocktails—all the better to disguise shoddy quality spirits. Meanwhile, American bartenders fled to countries where they could practice their crafts in peace, leading to an influx of international cocktails that came to dominate the generation and make their mark in alcoholic history.
Stock Your Bar for 1920s Cocktails
It all starts with booze! While any good wet bar should certainly have a full range of libations, 1920s cocktails favor a fairly standardized lineup of spirits. Make sure to keep gin, vermouth, bourbon, and white rum steadily stocked.
Given the unreliable flavoring of alcohol throughout the Prohibition era, 1920s cocktails rely heavily on mixers to sustain their tastes. In addition to versatile soda water, you’ll want to keep sweet spirits like triple sec, maraschino liqueur, and non-alcoholic grenadine on hand. Fresh juices from lime, pineapple, and orange also factor heavily into these recipes.
Glasses and Gear
It’s all about the presentation. If you don’t already have one, make sure to keep a cocktail shaker on hand to mix and chill your 1920s cocktails. For glasses, many of these recipes shine in a sleek coupe glass. Highball glasses lend an additional air of elegance.
Thrill your guests with garnishes to tie these classic drinks together. Lemon peel twists and orange peel twists top the garnishes on our list, but pineapple slices, lime wheels, and cherries also make an appearance. Season to your own tastes.
How to Mix and Serve These Timeless 1920s Cocktails
“First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you,” stated F. Scott Fitzgerald, perhaps the single most famous writer of the Roaring Twenties. The author of The Great Gatsby established a raucous reputation for partying along with his wife Zelda. While Fitzgerald would likely drink anything he was handed, he notoriously favored gin above all else thanks to his suspicion that it was undetectable on the breath. Sure. Honor this icon’s legacy by sipping on The Gin Rickey, a lighter offering amongst the 1920s cocktails that’s sure to leave you feeling refreshed but buzzed at once. Just fill a highball glass with ice, then add 2 oz gin and ½ oz freshly squeezed lime juice. Top with club soda, garnish with 2 lime wheels, and you’re on your way to literary greatness.
Throughout the Roaring Twenties, people would call something “the bees knees” if it was generally desirable, wonderful, or kickass. This iconic 1920s cocktail not only echoes the lingo of the time, but also new epicurean tastes—it was one of the first drinks to substitute honey for sugar, sparking bartenders’ interests in alternative and natural sweeteners. Its alleged inventor is Austrian-born bartender Frank Meier. To mix a Bees Knees just like he would have at Hôtel Ritz Paris during the 1920s, shake 2 oz of gin, ¾ oz of freshly squeezed lemon juice, and ½ oz honey syrup with ice until the mixture is well-chilled. You may have to amp up the sweetener if your lemons are especially sour. Then, strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a lemon twist. Et voila, you have a light and refreshing cocktail from times past!
To this day, the Mojito ranks one of the most ubiquitous and well-loved offerings on cocktail menus around the world. Popular opinion agrees the drink was born in Havana, and thrived throughout the 1920s since mint proves so effective in masking the pungent taste of dubiously brewed spirits. Because 1920s zeitgeist writer Ernest Hemingway spent so much time in Cuba, he’s often falsely associated with this influential 1920s cocktail. More on that later. To mix a Mojito in the true style of the Roaring Twenties, first muddle 8-10 mint leaves in a tall mixing glass with ¾ oz simple syrup and ¾ oz fresh lime juice. Then, add 1 ½ oz white rum and ice. Stir your cocktail, and top it off with a splash of soda water to taste. Garnish with 1 mint sprig. Timeless refreshment!
Brandy lovers will put pedal to the metal for the Sidecar, a classic 1920s cocktail that balances sweet and sour flavors against this heavier liquor. Differing backstories surround its creation. Some accounts attribute the Sidecar to Frank Meier, but The Spruce Eats shares another story: “The drink was developed in a Parisian bistro during World War I by a friend who rode up to a favorite bar in a motorcycle’s sidecar.” To join in the race, fill your shaker with 2 oz brandy, cognac, Armagnac, or bourbon. Add 1 oz premium triple sec and ¾ oz freshly squeezed lemon juice. Shake with ice until chilled, then strain and garnish with a lemon twist. Sugar around the rim is technically cheating, since that edition to the Sidecar came about decades after the Roaring Twenties, but we won’t tell anybody. It’s just not in the era’s spirit.
As we were saying, many people falsely believe that Ernest Hemingway favored the mojito. First of all, Hemingway was a diabetic and laid off the sugar as such. In reality, Hemingway’s favorite drink was the simple (albeit unforgiving) dry Martini. “Jeezus Christ!” Hemingway responded when a reporter asked about a rumor that he mixed martinis by the jug before heading off to write. “Have you ever heard of anyone who drank while he worked? You’re thinking of Faulkner. He does sometimes – and I can tell right in the middle of a page when he’s had his first one.” To unwind after the day is done, add 2 ½ oz gin, ½ oz dry vermouth, and 1 dash of orange bitters into a mixing glass with ice. Stir until it’s very cold, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Serve with a lemon twist, and sink into the relaxation!
Out of all the classic 1920s cocktails on our list, the Monkey Gland claims hands-down the most fascinating backstory. Its creator is Harry MacElhone of Harry’s New York Bar, a popular Parisian haunt of the era. “MacElhone named the cocktail after the work of French surgeon Serge Voronoff, who claimed his grafting procedure of monkey glands to human reproductive organs increased life expectancy,” Masterclass explains. “Though Voronoff’s claims were eventually debunked, the Monkey Gland’s popularity as a cocktail endures.” To try for yourself, first coat the inside of a chilled cocktail glass with super potent absinthe. Make sure to pour out any surplus liquor to avoid accidental poisoning. Next, mix 2 oz gin with 1 oz fresh orange juice and ¼ oz grenadine into a cocktail shaker, and shake with ice until chilled. Strain the mixture into your absinthe-coated glass, garnish with an orange peel twist, and enjoy your flight.
A storied favorite of famous figures like Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn B. Bennett’s, this icon of all 1920s cocktails takes its name from the New York City neighborhood that helped create it. Typically traced back to Harlem’s unparalleled Cotton Club, the Harlem Cocktail comes served in a Couple glass. Beware its erudite appearance and soft, fruity flavor—this drink packs a deceptive punch! To try for yourself, mix 2 oz dry gin with ¼ oz Maraschino liqueur and 1 ½ oz pineapple juice—fresh pressed is, of course, always best. Shake the blend with ice until it’s chilled, then strain and pour into a chilled glass. Garnish with a pineapple slice and/or maraschino cherry to complete the effect. Throw some Louis Armstrong on the turntable to relish the full sensory effect.
The Shirley Temple may reign supreme when it comes to drinks named after women, but Mary Pickford predates her and packs a real boozy edge. This super tasty and softly pretty 1920s cocktail takes its name from the Prohibition-era film star known to many as America’s sweetheart. Popular origin stories state this drink came about in Cuba, while Pickford herself was savoring some post-production libations with her husband and his best friend Charlie Chaplin. To join their trio, mix 2 oz white rum with 1 ½ oz pineapple juice, 1 teaspoon Maraschino liqueur, and two teaspoons grenadine. Shake with two handfuls of ice until cold, then strain and pour into a chilled glass. Garnish with luxardo cherries for the full movie star experience, and drink like you don’t know what happens in the decade ahead! God bless us all.