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Contraband Cocktails

How America Drank When It Wasn't Supposed To

Americans weren’t supposed to drink at all during Prohibition, but that’s not how things worked out: just as Congress amended the Constitution to keep their countrymen dry (while a bootlegger known as The Man in the Green Hat helped keep wet bars well-stocked on Capitol Hill), “cocktail culture” as we know it was born. The Bloody Mary, sleek chrome cocktail shakers, hip flasks and streamlined bar carts, craft mixology, and hundreds of other essentials of modern drinking life owe their origins to the dark days and boozy nights of the Dry Years. Rich with history, political intrigue, and cultural curiosities, in Contraband Cocktails Paul Dickson pours us an intoxicating narrative of how Americans drank during Prohibition.

But Contraband Cocktails isn’t just a wild ride with bootleggers and bartenders, rumrunners and mobsters, it also brims with literary lore: from when the word “cocktail” first appeared in print in D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover, to Daisy pouring Tom a mint julep at the Plaza Hotel in The Great Gatsby, to recipes (some of them shockingly, comically undrinkable!) for what Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Tennessee Williams, and many others were drinking when they ordered “just the usual,” this small, heavily annotated mixology brings readers out of our 21st century take on the speakeasy and straight into a chair at the Algonquin Roundtable.

We also visit the dimly lit nightclubs that displaced legal cabarets and gave a backdrop to the Jazz Age, a hedge outside the White House where bootleggers stashed bottles of booze in a burlap bag, and even the bathtub where the great chef and food writer James Beard spent Sunday afternoons concocting homemade gin.

Chock-full of scandalous history, delicious anecdotes, dozens of recipes, and a glossary of terms that could surprise even the most seasoned bartender, Paul Dickson’s Contraband Cocktails is the perfect companion to any reader’s Cocktail Hour.

PAUL DICKSON is the author of more than 65 books and hundreds articles that focus on the American language, baseball, and 20th Century history. His previous book for Melville House was Drunk: The Drinker’s Dictionary, which contains 2,985 words for various states of intoxication and was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest-ever collection of synonyms.  He lives in Garrett Park, Maryland, with his wife, Nancy. Read more about him at

“Dickson loads every page with facts, anecdotes and telling details about life under Prohibition.” The Washington Post

“Paul Dickson’s rollicking history of how Prohibition had the unintended consequence of
killing off the saloon of the previous century and giving rise to first, the speakeasy, and then the cocktail bar … Mr. Dickson writes with verve on the true birthplace of the cocktail and the speakeasy where Prohibition was flouted most spectacularly — New York City.” The Washington Times

“Dickson’s latest, Contraband Cocktails: How America Drank When It Wasn’t Supposed
To, began as a fascination with Prohibition-era recipe books that along the way naturally
snowballed into an engaging discourse on classic cocktails replete with trivia, recipes, a list of -alcohol-related slang of the period and a fair amount of Golden-Era literary and celebrity gossip.” Bookpage

“Prohibition did have, however, at least a couple of positive effects, as Paul Dickson
explains in Contraband Cocktails: How America Drank When It Wasn’t Supposed to (Melville House Publishing, 2015). The Temperance and Suffragette movements long had been intricately linked and the 18th and 19th Amendments both went into effect in 1920. But Prohibition itself also helped to obliterate old sexist boundaries. …Women danced, drank and smoked with men. They also went into the drinks businesses.” The American Spectator

Contraband Cocktails is a neat book as carefully crafted as some of the best cocktails are: without a word out of place and a concise history that is as much entertaining as it is educating…Contraband Cocktails is a fabulous work that ought to be in any hipster’s library or on the reading list of faux-speakeasy bartenders, but otherwise absolutely anyone with a fascination for the 1920s, who loves The Great Gatsby (films or book), or who are interested in the history of alcohol will definitely need to read this.” New York Journal of Books


Praise for Paul Dickson

“A national treasure who deserves a wide audience.” Library Journal

“Very cool.” —Rachel Maddow on The Dickson Baseball Dictionary

 [Dickson’s] tone is light but informed. He sprinkles in his own wit and amusing digressions.” The Washington Post on Authorisms

“A staggering piece of scholarship.” The Wall Street Journal on The Dickson Baseball Dictionary

 “Splendid.” The New York Times on Drunk: The Drinker’s Dictionary