“Cocktails” / Oil on canvas / 1926 / Art by Archibald Motley / Public Domain
They sit at a table in a private club, laughing, talking, and dazzling each other with their smiles. They are beautiful, affluent, Black women meeting for drinks at a time when America was not generous to Black people or women, and drinking was illegal. They seem happy.
Well, four of them, anyway.
The woman in the green dress seems uncomfortable – maybe even actively unhappy.
Their friend in the blue chair has been overwhelmed – maybe by drink; maybe by life.
And perhaps most importantly, what is everyone drinking?
Here are my guesses:
Based on nothing whatsoever, I have decided that this is Rose. She is the one who organized this party with a few of her old school friends. She has done comparatively well for herself – she married a dentist and they own their own home.
According to the 1920 Census, she and her husband both moved up to Chicago  as part of the Great Migration. To fit in with my entirely spurious narrative, they weren’t married at the time, but the fact that they were from the same part of the country was one of the things that brought them together as a couple.
Rose is one of the first people in her family to get an education. She hasn’t seen her friends from school in a few years and is hoping to impress them by meeting them for cocktails in a private club and bragging for a couple of hours.
As a consequence, she is drinking what was a very trendy cocktail in the 1920s, a Mary Pickford – named for America’s most popular movie actress at the time.
2 oz Golden Rum – I’ve used Clement Rhum Agricole. Would Rose have been able to get her hands on barrel-aged Caribbean rum during Prohibition? In Chicago? There you take me to deep water.
1½ oz Pineapple juice
A tiny amount (1/6 oz / 5 ml) of Maraschino liqueur – I’ve used Luxardo.
An equally tiny amount (1/6 oz / 5 ml) of Grenadine
- Combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice.
- Shake until extremely cold.
- Strain into a Nick & Nora glass, or other small, stemmed glass.
This is a surprisingly complex cocktail. There is something about maraschino that makes any alcohol taste boozier. This is one of those drinks that lures you in with its soft pink color and fruitiness, then pulls the rug out from under you, shouting, “HA!” If you drink this mind-numbingly cold, you will feel 16-17% more sophisticated.
But what about this lady?
This is Vivian.
She’s less than thrilled about this get-together. Rose was never actually her friend-friend in school, more the friend of a friend. Unfortunately, that actual friend is now passed out in an armchair and Vivian is stuck listening to Rose and her snobby friends gloat about their bourgeois husbands, until Sarah wakes up.
It’s not that Vivian is unhappy with her life or anything.
She likes her job – she’s one of a grand total of two Black or mixed-race librarians in the city. Okay, and sure, she still lives at home with her parents. And yes, she’s still unmarried in her early thirties (she hedged a little on the Census).
But it’s not like there’s anything wrong with any of that…
She wonders how many more of these cocktails she can get away with drinking, before she joins Sarah for a nap in the big, blue chair.
The Bee’s Knees
This is a classic cocktail from the 1920s. “The Bee’s Knees” was a catchy slang term of the time, describing something that was truly excellent, like “The Cat’s Pajamas”, or “The Elephant’s Instep”. Not surprisingly, this is honey-based.
2 oz Very cold gin – Depending on what type of honey you use, you might want to use something a little bracing, and not too expensive. Gordon’s works well.
¾ oz Honey syrup (see below)
¾ oz Fresh squeezed lemon juice
- Combine all ingredients over ice in a shaker.
- Shake ever so hard – long enough for your hands to start hurting from the cold.
- Strain into a small, stemmed glass – Nick & Nora, or otherwise.
This is a seductive cocktail. The sweetness of the honey syrup contrasts with the acidity of the lemon juice. The gin adds a slight harshness to the background that keeps this drink from becoming frivolous. It is absolutely delicious, and the colder it is, the more you find yourself wondering where your drink went, then ordering another.
- Bring equal parts honey and water to a boil over medium heat.
- Let the mixture boil briefly, to make sure that the honey is completely dissolved.
- Cool and bottle.
4. Store indefinitely in your refrigerator.
This is Sarah.
If life has been challenging for Vivian, it’s been brutal to Sarah.
She was married, briefly, but her husband died young. They never had any children, which is just as well; things have been tough. She works as a hairdresser out of her house, and takes in boarders to pay the bills. When you add it all up, she probably works eighty or a hundred hours a week.
When Rose looked her up and invited her to the club for drinks and catching up, she was excited. She managed to talk her friend Vivian into coming with her for moral support, but after two Gin Rickies, she had to sit down and take a nap.
Besides, she’s heard rumors about Rose’s husband from a couple of the girls whose hair she does, and gin and secrets are a dangerous mix.
A gin rickey is a 1920s-era cocktail meant to be an extremely light, almost ephemeral combination of gin, lime juice and seltzer. Switching out the lime juice for lime syrup makes it a little more substantial.
2 oz. Gin – I like Death’s Door for this.
1 oz Lime syrup (see below)
3-4 oz Extremely bubbly club soda – I like Topo Chico Mineral Water
- Add gin and lime syrup to ice in a shaker.
- Ask your digital assistant to please play Muskrat Ramble by Sidney Bechet.
- Shake for as long as seems appropriate. Sidney will guide you.
- Pour into a tall, narrow glass, over three ice cubes.
- Top off with club soda; stir gently.
It’s important to use an extra-bubbly club soda for this drink. If you do this right, your first sip will be effervescent, shooting micro-bubbles up your nose and onto your palate, hitting you with gin and lime – an experience related to drinking champagne.
Related, but not closely enough to prevent dating.
(I’m not really sure what that means.)
It’s limey. It’s ginny. It’s very, very good.
Ask Sarah, when she wakes up.
- Combine equal parts fresh squeezed lime juice and sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat.
- Boil for 10-15 additional seconds, to make sure the sugar is completely dissolved.
- Remove from heat.
- Add the zest of 1-2 limes, cover, and steep for 30 minutes. (Any longer than that, and the syrup will start to get a little bitter.)
- Strain, bottle, and store indefinitely in your refrigerator.
This is Archibald Motley, the artist who painted Cocktails.
What would he drink?
This is a riff on a cocktail by renowned British cocktail guy, Simon Difford. Irish whiskey seems like an unlikely base for this drink, but it plays off the more exotic ingredients, grounding them and keeping them from getting delusions of grandeur.
1½ oz Irish whiskey – I used Paddy’s.
½ oz Kirsch (cherry brandy)
½ oz dry sherry – I used Amantiado
½ oz Dry vermouth
1/6 oz (5 ml) Red currant syrup (see below)
1 dash Creole bitters
- Add all ingredients, and ice, to a stirring glass.
- Stir gently, but thoroughly.
- Strain into a small, stemmed cocktail glass.
There is such a small amount of red currant syrup in this drink that you might be forgiven for wondering if it even matters.
It does. There is not enough to make this very bracing cocktail anything like sweet, but there is a fruity background note that dances well with the bitters. The sherry stands to the side, watching the other ingredients do their thing, looking over his pince-nez glasses, amused, but not judging. He and the whiskey surreptitiously give each other the chin-raise nod of respect.
Much like the Mary Pickford, this is a drink that will make you feel extremely grown up.
Red Currant Syrup
The original version of this recipe calls for Groseille syrup, made from red currants. It is difficult to find, even online. It is possible to find recipes for making your own, provided you can find red currants.
Which I can’t.
What I can find, is British red currant jelly.
- Bring two parts red currant jelly, and one part water (2:1) to a simmer over low heat, stirring frequently.
- Actually, that’s it. You’ve syruped it.
 Why Chicago? That is where Archibald Motley, the artist, lived and worked during the 1920s.