When Prohibition made the nation dry, the East End kept booze flowing.
One would imagine that the moment Prohibition went into effect- midnight, January 16, 1920-would have been marked with considerable notice by those who opposed it. But only a few New York City spots marked the passage of the new law, setting their tables with black cloths as a gesture of mourning.
Perhaps there was a collective sense that the temperance movement- which had been active for decades-had scored only a temporary victory when the Volstead Act became law, making it illegal to produce, import or consume alcoholic beverages on U.S. soil. As New Yorkers did after Mayor Bloomberg banned cigarette smoking in the city’s bars, customers continued to partake of the forbidden substance in the months immediately following the passage of the new law. Folks thought nothing of flouting Prohibition’s rules and restrictions, believing it to be an unreasonable, unjust law. And, in spite of the law, there was no shortage of alcohol in New York City. Drinkers just found new ways to get it.
Eastern Long Island was the perfect launching ground for transporting alcohol illegally. It wasn’t only rum that was smuggled into the U.S., but the activity was known as “rum-running” because the popularity of rum made it a generic term for liquor.
Industrious opportunists from near and far saw Prohibition as an opportunity to make money. British citizens purchased cases of rum from the West Indies and the Caribbean, and whiskey from Canada and Europe, and then carried the goods by ship to just outside the three-mile limit, the waterways that separated Long Island from the rest of the world. Up to this limit (eventually extended to 12 miles), it was legal to transport liquor. It was the experienced fisherman and whalers from the North and South Forks who took on the task of sneaking cases of spirits to the land where it was forbidden.
Because of their expertise, the Long Island boatmen could easily outmaneuver and outrun any Coast Guard officer who sought to capture their shipments. So, in the early 1920s, rum-running was a safe (and guilt-free) way for a fisherman to pick up extra cash-much more than he could make hauling a load of seafood. Once on land, the contraband was transported to Manhattan via trucks or cars with hidden compartments under their chassis. One Rail Express worker told tales of delivering a large box of oysters to an address in Manhattan and receiving an unusually large tip, a reward for smuggling (unbeknownst to him) an illegal shipment of Champagne.
At first rum-running was an easy way for East End sailors, whalers and fisherman to make a quick buck. But after a few years it became more dangerous. Rumrunners had to watch out not only for the Coast Guard, but for hijackers, often in the employ of famous gangsters such as Dutch Schultz, who sought to steal the cargo that the rumrunners had already paid for; the hijackers weren’t timid about using violence and weapons to get what they wanted.
Please don’t tell .
For those involved there was a tension between the desire not to get caught and the desire to broadcast their adventures. At least two men wrote firsthand accounts of their experiences, albeit under false names and with many of the details altered (including the names of their boats). Alistair Moray’s “The Diary of a Rum-Runner” was published in 1929 and James Barbican’s “The Confessions of a Rum-Runner” was first published in 1928, while Prohibition was still in full force.
Among the keepers of this local history, and the secrets therein, was Jeannette Edwards Rattray, who at times throughout her long life as an East Hampton resident was columnist, publisher and owner of the East Hampton Star. Born on July 28, 1893, in
Amagansett, she watched the East End change dramatically from the late 19th century until her death in 1974. In March 1963, Rattray published “Rum-running Tales from the East End” in the Folklore Quarterly (New York Historical Association in Cooperstown, NY, reprinted in Discovering the Past: The Writings of Jeannette Edwards Rattray), having finally received permission to tell a few of the tales of one former rumrunner of her acquaintance. Even 30 years after the repeal of Prohibition, she kept her promise to protect his identity.
“The trouble with rum-running,” Rattray writes in 1963, “was that, though it afforded adventure, and was profitable, the participants could not do much talking about it.” Like most other residents of the area, Rattray was aware that alcohol was being transported via the East End, but, like them, she didn’t talk or write about it at the time.
The history of this period is even murkier than the typical hotly contested origins of most cocktails and spirits, because, in addition to conflicting tales told by innovators, their fans and other braggarts, there was also a veil of secrecy surrounding the activities of rumrunners. Rattray’s anonymous friend, “a respected, hardworking fisherman” told her of his business dealings with Bill McCoy, otherwise known as “the Real McCoy” because of the high quality of the unadulterated liquor he transported. (Bootleg or moonshine liquor not only tasted bad, but could be toxic or even lethal, depending on what chemicals were used to cut it.) In spite of the high quality of the liquor he carried, McCoy was a sailor first, a rum-running adventurer second. In 1921, his ship, the Arethusa, “a floating liquor store,” was proudly harbored in Gardiner’s Bay.
Once hijackers, pirates and New York City mobsters became involved, many Long Island residents gave up this lucrative business. Most famously, Claudio’s, the historic seafood restaurant in Greenport, was a hot spot both for smuggling and imbibing. Bill Claudio, who along with his two sisters operates the restaurant that has been in their family since 1870, tells the story of Manuel Claudio, a retired whaler originally from Portugal, who came to the United States in 1854. In a phone interview, Claudio describes how small boats would drop off cargo at Claudio’s in the middle of the night, in the fog or during a rainstorm, all tactics devised to keep their activities secret. Upstairs, patrons enjoyed cocktails in a speakeasy-like environment, hiding their drinks when warnings of a raid were reported.
The architecture of Claudio’s made access relatively easy: A raised building on stilts with no basement made it possible for cargo to be brought in through a trapdoor underneath the building. Rye whiskey and Scotch came primarily from Canada, while rum was smuggled from Caribbean islands. Frank J. Claudio ceased his rumrunning activities in 1926, after the car transporting liquor to New York City was hijacked in Smithtown and the driver was shot.
Though many East Enders were involved in smuggling, the refusal to talk about it continues to this day. Mr. Claudio is one notable exception, along with some former rumrunners now in their late 80s or early 90s (or their offspring) who agreed to be interviewed when the History Channel came to Greenport to film part of a documentary on rum-running. Claudio’s served as a base of operations, with many family members coming forward for the first time to be interviewed there.
One Montauk resident was not shy about sharing her story. In interviews taped shortly before her death, Mary Smith Fullerton tells stories about her life during Prohibition. Her parents owned the Wynadanee Inn on Montauk Point, a popular lodging. Gangsters rented garages and stalls in the hotel’s large basement to store their contraband or hold it until it could be driven to Manhattan. Fullerton’s parents were among those who stashed the illegal liquor under fake floors in automobiles. On many occasions, she reports, she drove with them to speakeasies and nightclubs. Fullerton accompanied her father on one memorable run, but, fearing she was in danger, he told her to get out and to stay put until he came back to get her. She waited for 12 long hours on the side of the road (now the Long Island Expressway) until he came to fetch her.
Recently, an artifact of the period-a rumrunner’s book of codes-came into the possession of the Oysterpond Historical Society in Orient. The book contains an immaculately typed list of messages: reports on the weather (fog and rain being the most desirable conditions); warnings to keep traveling toward Nova Scotia or other directions; or details about the cargo on board. It is most likely that the boatmen used lights to flash the codes.
The identity of the family who kept this book for all the years since Prohibition is still a secret. The only things that Oysterpond archivist Amy Folk could reveal was that the surprisingly pristine codebook had been caught in a fisherman’s net in Gardiner’s Bay when a rumrunner threw it overboard, that the fisherman’s family had held on to it until the death of the last heir and that the family had been involved in the temperance movement.
Sometimes wet, sometimes dry.
As a temperance town, Orient was considered to be an exception on the North Fork; while just a short distance away, Greenport still bears the mark of Prohibition. Several houses on Main Street have peepholes on the upstairs floors, formerly used to screen potential customers and to keep law enforcement agents out.
Two such agents, Brooklyn residents Izzy Einstein, a postal clerk, and his partner, Moe Smith, undertook an undercover operation to catch bar owners in the act of selling alcoholic beverages. One technique Einstein used to collect evidence was a small glass funnel secreted in his jacket pocket and connected to a bottle in the lining of his coat. Another ploy he used, according to Edward Behr’s book Prohibition (Arcade, 1996), was to ask: “Would you like to sell a pint of whiskey to a deserving Prohibition agent?”
Einstein’s surprisingly successful techniques included a changing roster of disguises: He wore fishing gear when on Long Island; in Manhattan he played sidekick to Moe’s rich out-of-town businessman, announcing in a voice loud enough for the waiter to hear that he was looking for something decent to drink. A gullible waiter, they hoped, would lead them to a nearby speakeasy.
“There were also speakeasies in Sag Harbor,” writes Bryan Boyhan, editor of the Sag Harbor Express, in an e-mail, “The little brick building where Sag Harbor Florist is on Bay Street was one. I remember looking through the building in the late 1980s and the old bar was still there. It was nicknamed the Mousetrap, supposedly because it was owned by the Oniskos, a family of small physical stature.”
Prohibition had some unintended effects on the culture of drinking. “Instead of stigmatizing the drinking of alcohol, Prohibition actually made it more respectable…[and] gave rise to the speakeasy, which soon became the habitat of women and the middle class,” writes Wayne Curtis in And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the World in Ten Cocktails. By 1927, the number of speakeasies in the city rose to over 30,000-at least twice as many as all the legal restaurants, bars and clubs before Prohibition.
In addition, enforcement was spotty because police were either in on the action, collecting a portion of the proceeds from illegal sales, or they turned a blind eye, particularly in their favorite watering holes, from the Maidstone in East Hampton to McSorley’s in the East Village. New York City is littered with the evidence of former speakeasies, including Bill’s Gay Nineties, Fanelli’s, the 21 Club and the Old Town Bar, where you can still find hidden compartments under the benches once used for storing illegal hooch.
Recently, along with a renewed interest in classic pre-Prohibition cocktails, there has also been a proliferation of (faux) speakeasies. These two phenomena are related: The interest in carefully crafted cocktails requires a proper atmosphere in which to enjoy them.
“The main appeal of the modern speakeasy,” says Mr. Curtis by phone, “is the low incidence of douche-baggery.” The idea isn’t to recreate Prohibition, he explained, but to control the experience of sitting in a bar. They close their doors when all the seats are filled, so that the bartenders have the time and space to make a drink and do it right.
Prohibition, straight up.
Another characteristic of the modern speakeasy or cocktail lounge is the interest in cocktail history and authenticity. One spirit that has captured the imagination of mixologists in Manhattan and Brooklyn is rhum agricole, a style of rum made from fresh pressed sugarcane juice instead of molasses, produced on French islands in the Caribbean. In 1996, rhum agricole from Martinique received the AOC (Appelation of Controlled Origin) designation in France, subject to rigid standards like those for Cognac and Champagne.
Rhum agricole was not one of the rums being transported during Prohibition. While it was sporadically available here over the past several decades, it wasn’t until 2005 when it was reintroduced in the U.S. that we began to see an increased interest in this artisanal sugarcane rum.
The national drink of Martinique is the Ti Punch (short for petit punch), a combination of un-aged rhum, a slice of lime peel with a bit of pulp, and sugarcane syrup, that imbibers mix to their own preferred proportions. A traditional rum punch, by contrast, is usually made with five ingredients, including fresh juices such as pineapple or orange in addition to rum, sugar syrup and lime. At local speakeasies, bartenders excited by the possibilities offered by the grassy, vegetal rhum are creating a whole new genre of punches and other cocktails.
At Manhattan speakeasy PDT (Please Don’t Tell, 113 St. Marks Place, 212.614.0386), a sophisticated cocktail bar located in the basement of a hot dog joint, bartender John deBary created a drink called the PDTida, a play on the batida, a milkshake-like drink that combines fruit, milk, sweetener and rum. His version is made with Rhum Clément V.S.O.P. (an aged rhum), lemon juice, sweetened condensed milk and fresh peach, shaken and poured over ice, then garnished with grated cinnamon.
The Hideout, a hard-to-find bar in Brooklyn (266 Adelphi Street, 718.855.3010) mixes the Punch and Judy, a play on rum punch consisting of Clément rhum agricole, Rémy V.S.O.P., Hendrick’s Gin, Bols orange curaçao, pineapple juice, lime juice, OJ, agave nectar and mint. Bartender Aaron Harms created the Jam, which combines Rhum J.M. Paille (gold) with honey syrup, a splash of club soda with an orange twist, served on the rocks at the Richardson in Williamsburg (451 Graham Avenue, 718.389.0839). This powerful drink brings forth the characteristic aromas and flavors of rhum agricole and should be taken with caution.
For an overview of different brands and expressions of rhum agricole and other rums, you can study at the Brandy Library in Tribeca (25 N. Moore Street, 212.226.5545). Beverage director Ethan Kelley has put together a rum flight called “Rum-running: A tasting of rums, rones [Spanish], and rhums [French],” which consists of 10 Cane Rum (a sugarcane rum that is not rhum agricole), Appleton Extra, Montecristo 12, Barbancourt 15, Clément V.S.O.P. and a mystery rum. He also features the Martinique Amber, a cocktail composed of Rhum Clément V.S.O.P., Pommeau (an apple liqueur), dried fig and maple syrup. He uses La Favorite Blanc, a brand of Martinique rhum agricole, which he believes is one of the best examples of white rhum because of its clean flavor, in the Brandy Library’s Ti Punch.
The “authentic” swizzle stick also hails from Martinique. A trimmed branch of the sweet smelling lélé (French slang for tree), the baton lélé (as it is called in Martinique) is used to gently stir a cocktail without disturbing the different layers. At ‘inoteca, Vino and Cucina e Liquori Bar (323 3rd Avenue, 212.683.3035), bar manager Matthew Piacentini demonstrated how to make the Queens Park Swizzle, three ounces J.M. Rhum Agricole blanc, ¾ ounces lime juice plus 1 wedge, one-half ounce simple syrup and a small pinch of mint, built in a highball glass filled with crushed ice. After swizzling with a rotating motion, he finished the cocktail off with four dashes of Angostura bitters on top and a garnish of mint sprig. He also created his own take on the drink, a Martinique Swizzle, prepared with an absinthe rinse (two dashes of absinthe in the glass), lemon juice, simple syrup, rhum agricole, Angostura bitters and fresh mint. Both are incredibly refreshing. “Nothing else has the subtle yet never-ending flavor of rhum agricole,” says Piacentini. “It lingers and lasts on your palate and does so much of the work for you in a mixed drink.”
“I think we owe a lot more to the tiki era than to the pre-Prohibition classics,” claims Fatty Crab (2170 Broadway, 212.496.2722) beverage manager Allan Katz, who is a passionate student of tiki history. Don the Beachcomber is credited with creating a “variety and array of drinks using multiple expressions of rum,” he says. That’s where rhum agricole comes in. Rather than being the supersweet, cloying tropical vacation cocktails many of us have experienced, Katz’s Uptown Mai Tai is complex and delightful. He creates this effect by combining both Cruzan rum and aged Martinique rhum agricole along with his own recipe for orgeat, an almond flavored syrup enhanced by hard-to-find spices sourced by chef Zak Pelaccio, along with lime and curaçao.
At Death & Co, Brian Miller creates a version of the Mai Tai called My Oh My Ty with La Favorite Blanc Agricole Rhum, Flor de Cana seven-year rum, fresh lime juice, simple syrup, Rhum Clément Creole Shrubb (orange-spice infused rhum), Premier Essence Orgeat and Vieux Pontarlier absinthe, shaken with three ice cubes, strained into a coconut mug over crushed ice and garnished with a mint sprig. “I chose La Favorite Blanc because I believe it is a necessary ingredient in a Mai Tai and it is one of my favorite white agricole rhums,” says Miller in an e-mail. “I like agricole rhums because of their aroma and flavors. It just tastes different from molasses-based rum. The aroma reminds me a bit of freshcut grass. I also like the aged agricoles. They’re perfect for just sipping and make a great Old-Fashioned.” Death & Co also stocks La Favorite Ambre, Rhum J.M. V.S.O.P. and Rhum J.M. Blanc, Neisson Élevé Sous Bois, Neisson Reserve Especial.
Julie Reiner, owner of Flat Iron Lounge (37 W. 19th Street, Manhattan, 212.727.7741) and Clover Club (210 Smith Street, Brooklyn, 718.855.7939) loves rhum agricole. Her favorite brand, Niessen, “has a funk to it that really gives the cocktail so much more depth and flavor than if you were to use a white rum.” At the Clover Club, the Mai Thai is a Thai-inspired daiquiri, composed of one ounce Flor de Cana four-year white rum and one ounce of Niessen Blanc, lime and fresh lime juice, lemongrass syrup and a kaffir lime leaf in the shaker. At both bars, you’ll find the Nola Buck on the cocktail menu; Niessen Blanc, ginger beer, fresh pineapple juice, fresh lime and simple syrup served over ice in a Collins glass.
At the North Fork Inn and Table (57225 Main Road, Southold, 631.765.0177), co-owner Michael Mraz pays tribute to the history of the area with a cocktail called the Real McCoy, a nod to the rumrunner who was known for not diluting his product. The drink is a mixture of black cherry infused rum with a splash of lemon juice topped with seltzer and garnished with a lemon twist.
Tweed’s Restaurant and Buffalo Bar (17 E. Main Street, Riverhead) traces its history back to 1886, as the restaurant for the John J. Sullivan hotel. The place took its name from its association with Boss Tweed (Sullivan held the number one card in the corrupt political club known as Tammany Hall.) The bar was the recipient of the first liquor license in Riverhead in 1896, but nothing-including the law-ever got in the way of delivering drinks. During Prohibition, “they used to move the booze between the gap between the buildings down to what is now the bar through a still-working system of dumbwaiters and trapdoors,” says Anthony Coates, unofficial historian of the restaurant and bar. Tweed’s maintains its ties to the Prohibition by stocking old traditional brands that still exist such as Plymouth Gin (Coates also has family connections to the brand), Gordon’s, Cutty Sark and Four Roses.
The Bar at the Palm at Huntting Inn (94 Main Street, East Hampton, 631.324.0410) is located in a house that precedes Prohibition by several centuries: It was built in 1699, but it didn’t become an inn until 1912. Rumor has it that the beautiful oak-back bar itself was rescued from a 150-year-old Brooklyn brownstone that was scheduled for demolition. Here today’s wets can enjoy a Mojito in the Raw, made with freshly muddled mint, lime, soda water and 10 Cane Rum, which, like rhum agricole, is made from sugarcane instead of molasses.
If the thirst for rum strikes you on the South Fork, Mark Smith, beverage manager of Nick and Toni’s (136 N. Main Street, East Hampton, 631.324.3550) recommends a house cocktail (quite legal and not at all secret), the Ruby Slipper, a blend of Meyer’s dark rum, pomegranate, muddled fresh ginger, fresh lime, shaken and served up with ginger slice garnish. “It has a dark-ruby-garnet color, spicy but mellowed by pomegranate with a lime backbone,” he says.
Until a few years ago, lingering Prohibition-era laws prohibited New Yorkers from distilling-at least for sale to the public. Now, fortunately, there’s Tuthilltown Spirits and Warwick Valley Vineyard and Distiller upstate, not to mention an upstart or two in Brooklyn. Long Island Spirits in Mattituck produces a local potato vodka, LiV, and now a brandy in conjunction with Peconic Bay Winery.
Prohibition neither began nor ended abruptly. In the days and months leading up to it, counties and even townships could choose whether to go wet or dry. And that was as true on the East End as anywhere. “East Hampton Town and Southampton Town were sometimes both wet, both dry, or one wet and one dry,” Sag Harbor Express editor Brian Boyhan says. “As the story goes, The Corner Bar, or what was then the Corner Bar, remained in operation during this curious period and, since it is partly in East Hampton and partly in Southampton, one would simply use one door or the other (one in East Hampton, one in Southampton) as their main door.”
Ted Conklin, proprietor of the American Hotel on Sag Harbor’s Main Street, has heard a similar story. “I can’t authenticate this tale, but it’s a fun one,” he says. “Since the town line actually cut through the Hotel, Division Street being only an approximate boundary line, the owner, Will Youngs, used to simply move the bar from its present location into another room.” In its current location, the Hotel’s bar and its two seasoned barkeeps continue to welcome revelers, who can probably order any mixer served there in the 1930s, if they know what to ask for.
These changing borders between wet and dry remained an apt metaphor for the actual practice of Prohibition throughout its 13-year history. Finally, on December 5, 1933, after some partial measures, Prohibition was completely abolished with the ratification of the 21st Amendment. It didn’t take much convincing for New Yorkers to raise a glass and make a toast to Repeal. Some Long Islanders who profited from the illegal trade had mixed emotions. They had hoped rum-running would last forever.
Nancy Davidson shakes up classic and original cocktails in her Manhattan apartment. During Prohibition her grandfather made wine in New York City from California grapes and stored it under the front porch. Norah Burton contributed reporting to this story.