In the sepia-toned days of the 1920s, husbands spent too much of their paycheck at the bar, factory workers suffered injuries after tipsy lunches, Wild West saloons were dens of debauchery and murder — and it all got to be just too much for proper society. Enter Prohibition, a nearly 14-year experiment in which the sale, purchase and manufacturing of alcohol was verboten in the United States. We know how well that turned out.
To celebrate the end of Prohibition, Next Door Lounge in Hollywood will be running weeknight specials Oct. 29 through Dec. 5, dates significant for both the passage and the repeal of the law. On Fridays you'll hear live (free) jazz, on Wednesdays there are $30 bourbon tastings, but perhaps most notable are “Soup Kitchen” Tuesdays, where one dollar gets you soup, baguette — and a shot of moonshine.
Head barman Zachary Henry, who looks the part of a Prohibition-era barkeep, has recently revamped the drinks menu, surrounding himself with barrel-aged whiskeys. Squid Ink pulled up a stool to chat moonshine and make-your-own bitters.
Squid Ink: Why are people into the whole Prohibition thing?
Zac Henry: The speakeasy feel, people like the vibe of it. There's a little bit of sexiness to the whole experience. Every Friday or Saturday night there's always at least one group in here dressed up [in 1920s garb].
SI: What have you been seeing trendwise behind the bar?
ZH: The trend right now is going back to classic cocktails. So I'm trying to reinvent old cocktails, bring them to life with maybe a new twist, change it up a little bit. By the way, classic cocktails have to have bitters in order to be considered a “cocktail.”
SI: Well, what's a drink called if there's alcohol, maybe some fruit — but no bitters?
ZH: A punch. Or cobblers, or cups — like a Pimm's cup — and you'll have fizzes and sours. All classifications of drinks that don't have bitters.
SI: (Scanning the drink menu) Do all sours have lemon juice?
SI: What's going on in the little barrels at the back of your bar?
ZH: Back when I first started bartending, I learned mixing alcohols smooths out the flavor. So I'm taking that to the next level, making my own bitters in-house and infusing them with whiskeys in the barrels. It smooths it out — and gives it a little oaky flavor. If you burn the wood, it'll bring some smoky flavor to it, too.
SI: How often do you make a barrel?
ZH: About once every two weeks. I come up with a new cocktail, then mix it, and age it for six to eight weeks. The smaller the barrel, the faster it's going to mature. The bigger the barrel, the less contact with the alcohol, so it takes a lot longer. That's why I'm using the 5-liter barrels, so they'll age a lot quicker.
SI: I only see two back there — you must have a whole supply somewhere, aging.
ZH: Yes, at my house.
SI: They trust you with all that alcohol?
ZH: Haha, yes they do.
SI: One of those barrels has your version of a Manhattan in it — what's in that?
ZH: Right now I have St. George Breaking & Entering Bourbon, Cynar artichoke liqueur, Carpano Antica, which is a sweet vermouth; then I'll make my own wildflower bitters to go with it.
SI: How does one make bitters?
ZH: It's a maceration process where you're taking a high-proof alcohol and adding to it whatever you want, whether it's an herb, a fruit or a spice. Put it in jars for three months, shake it up, and just taste it and taste it until it's what you want; then take out the ingredients, strain it, pour it into a bottle and you're good to go.
SI: What's happening in the other barrel?
ZH: It's something I came up with for fall: I wanted to do something a little cinnamony with a rye. So I used Templeton Rye, which has a nice spiciness to it, then I added Xante, which is a pear cognac, then Carpano Antica (vermouth), and then fuyu bitters and velvet falernum, which gives it a bit of a cinnamon flavor.
SI: On Tuesdays you're doing dollar shots of moonshine. What is moonshine, exactly?
ZH: Moonshine is corn whiskey, usually (though it can be rye or barley). Once you cook it down and take it out of the still, that's moonshine, there's no age on it. It's pretty much just the raw form. All whiskey comes out clear like that, then picks up color from the wood of the barrels over four, six, eight years — however long they age it.
SI: Why was bootlegged moonshine so dangerous?
ZH: Because they didn't take out the methanol — the bad part of alcohol that comes out during the distilling process. There's usually 1 to 5 percent methanol and the distilleries take it out during the process and bottle moonshine without it. It's illegal to brew your own moonshine in California.
SI: Does moonshine work in any cocktails?
ZH: It works in every cocktail. Right now we're doing one called the Devil's Moon: mango nectar, lime juice, simple syrup and a little chipotle for a little bit of spiciness, and the corn in the moonshine breaks through the drink a lot better than it would if you used a normal whiskey. It goes really well with a little bit of spice.
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