Thirteen years was too long a wait for Palm Beachers to go without booze.
So they didn’t.
Prohibition was the law of the land until Dec. 5, 1933, when Utah became the 36th state needed to ratify the 21st Amendment, which repealed more than a decade of laws against liquor.
But the 80th anniversary this week is more a formal celebration of the end of America’s teetotaling. Because for the well-heeled in Palm Beach, the alcohol never stopped flowing.
“People had underground caches of booze,” said Debi Murray, chief curator at the Palm Beach Historical Society.
Surrounded by nothing but coastline, Palm Beach island has endless points of entry for rum runners bringing in liquor from the Bahamas. It was an offshore pivot point 60 miles away for alcohol produced in Europe and France. (Murray’s own grandfather was a yacht captain bringing in rum from the Bahamas.)
Historical homes all over the town of Palm Beach have been found to have trap doors where families kept their liquor cabinets, or swinging bookcases to make Bruce Wayne jealous.
“Goodness gracious, yes,” Murray said. “It happened here a lot. No doubt.”
The wealthy could get their hands on Cognac, Irish whiskey, fine Bahamian rum, citrusy Cointreau and other fine liquors. The rest of America made do with homemade hooch.
This backroom distilled moonshine was a sometimes vile, fiery concoction that had the desired effect if not the flavor. Enter the mixed drink.
“The booze was foul. They needed to have mixers put in it,” said Glenn Carson, 48, chief bartender, historian and unofficial-official spokesperson at Testa’s Restaurant in Palm Beach.
Testa’s Restaurant, open continuously since 1921, was a favorite hangover spot for the sporting set. They staggered their way in from the now-defunct Beach Club, a private casino and club owned by the late Colonel E.R. Bradley just a few blocks down Royal Poinciana Way (then called Main Street), where Murray said “they always had booze.”
The Testa’s claim their restaurant didn’t have a backroom speakeasy but was the first place in Florida where a legal keg was publicly tapped. They have the vintage photos of the Budweiser Clydesdales pulling the wagon train of beer down Royal Poinciana in a Gothic-Bible-sized scrapbook by the entrance to the restaurant, along with family photos documenting the family’s roots in Palm Beach.
Porcelain figurines of the Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales and a pair of busts of August Busch and his wife were gifts from the company and now adorn the knotty pine bar.
One of the famous cocktails to make its way to America was the Sidecar, thought to have been in invented in Paris after the end of World War I — and brought back by G.I.s and later the wealthy, who vacationed in non-dry European countries during prohibition.
“So when the bars reopened, the Sidecar is the kind of drink they served,” Carson said.
The Sidecar is a classic mixed drink, a combination of Cognac or brandy with Cointreau and lemon juice. (In America, during prohibition, it was often made with backroom-distilled whiskey.)
“You get that vapor from Cognac that isn’t present in whiskey, and it adds a different tone to the drink,” Carson said.
Its powerful nose of alcohol with a bittersweet orange bite feels like an affront to temperance.
What better way to celebrate such an anniversary?
Sidecar by Glenn Carson at Testa’s Restaurant
2 ounces Cognac or brandy (or, if you’re feeling particularly American today, whiskey)
½ ounce Cointreau
1/3 lemon or lime
Squeeze the lemon into a shaker full of ice. Add the Cognac and Cointreau and shake briefly or stir gently, to cool the drink but not water it down. Add sugar to the rim of a chilled martini glass. Pour and add an orange wedge for garnish.