Writer’s Corner- Interview with Mr. Matthew Rowley
We are delighted to bring you this interview with Matthew Rowley, whom we’ve known and admired for many years. Matthew’s passion for all things aromatic and flavorful comes across easily in all his conversations and we are happy many of his observations and findings are now forever recorded in the form of this excellent book.
Luis and Margaret Ayala, Publishers
What is your full name and location?
I am Matthew Rowley. I live in San Diego, California.
You recently published a book on Prohibition. What is the name of your book and what inspired you to write it?
The new book is called Lost Recipes of Prohibition: Notes from a Bootlegger ’s Manual. Lost Recipes is based on a handwritten notebook compiled by a German-born New York physician from 1921 to about 1930. I collect books about food and drink and have a library of about 3000 volumes at home. My friend Fritz Blank, the chef/proprietor of the now-closed Philadelphia restaurant Deux Cheminees, was also a culinary collector – although he had about five times as many books as I did. Fritz was a model of generosity; he gave me the old original notebook as a gift 2002 saying simply “Here, this is more your area than mine.”
Hidden inside the covers for a 1912 book of poetry, Dr. Victor Lyon penned over 300 recipes in English, German, and Latin for spirits, cordials, absinthes, gins and genevers, various brandies — and rum. The recipes and formulae in his formulary are a mixed bag; some are exactly the kind of counterfeit spirits we expect from Prohibition. Want to know about bathtub gin? He’s got about 15 recipes. Some of the ingredients he mentions casually are so toxic that they shouldn’t even be handled. Other recipes, however, are quite elegant and many are worth reviving.
I wrote the book in part because Lyon’s notebook is fascinating in and of itself and I wanted to share with people. Moreover, the American cocktail renaissance is maturing. Old cocktail books have been thoroughly mined by competent historians and curious bartenders. As fantastic as they are, we’re not likely to rediscover a great many more new techniques or cocktails from those old bartenders’ manuals. If we want to move American beverage arts forward, it’s worth looking at unexpected and lesser-known sources. That means looking at manuals, formularies, and other books that are either from other fields such as biology (hello, rapid nitrogen infusions) or that are written in other languages such as French, Spanish, German, Italian, Dutch, etc. Ten years ago, you had to be an intrepid traveler and researcher to find these sorts of books in scattered university libraries or in private hands, but now so many of them have been scanned and are available as PDFs that so many neglected works have become really easy to access. Compounding formularies such as Dr. Lyon’s are not distillers’ manuals and they’re not bartenders’ guides, but they do share something with each: directions for making – and sometimes faking – a wealth of alcoholic beverages.
It is often said that ignoring the lessons from the past is a sure guarantee that we’ll repeat them in the future. I am curious to know what “lessons” you uncovered from rum’s past, while doing research for your book.
I’m reminded of American physician and pure food campaigner Harvey W. Wiley who bemoaned the sad state of rum affairs at the dawn of Prohibition in his classic manual Beverages and Their Adulteration. “As in the case of whiskey and brandy,” he wrote, “rum has been subjected to all kinds of adulteration. So great has become the adulteration of rum shipped to England from Jamaica that for every barrel of rum sent 6 barrels were sold.”
Of the 300+ entries in Victor Lyon’s notebook, not one includes directions for making actual rum, for starting with molasses or sugarcane, then fermenting, distilling, aging, and blending it. Every single one of his recipes involving rum either starts with that spirit as the base for making something else — shrubs, for instance — or is complete artifice. The thing is, Lyon wasn’t some outlier compounding these sketchy fictions nobody had ever drunk or even heard of. During Prohibition, wealthy clientele often believed that while hoi polloi got cut, watered down, and faked spirits, they were getting the Real McCoy — but swells sometimes bought counterfeit wet goods the same as John Q. Public did; they just paid more for it. Lyon’s recipes fall firmly into an age-old tradition among rum merchants for deception. They reflect historical rums more accurately than many distillers would have us believe.
The implication, of course, about these sorts of recipes is that bartenders and rum cocktail enthusiasts who want to replicate old cocktail recipes may not get anywhere near an “authentic” taste when they use modern ingredients that have far fewer additives, tweaks, and flavors than historic rums. When counterfeit liquor is in the local market, everything about drinking becomes suspect, every bottle questionable. Except for vintage bottles of unimpeachable provenance, it’s wise to approach any historic bottle of rum with the assumption that was inside may be a recent counterfeit or may, in fact be vintage, but was counterfeit when it was bottled originally. After all, vintage wine buyers understand that the market is riddled with counterfeits. Far too few vintage spirits collectors have gotten to hip to that notion.
Is there a particular chapter in your book that you enjoyed writing the most?
The entire book from start to finish was such a fun project that it’s difficult to single out one particular aspect that was more enjoyable than the others. If I had to choose, however, I would say that tracing the lineage of modern cocktail books and bartender manuals back further than Jerry Thomas’s 1862 Bar-Tender’s Guide (often cited as the first bartender’s manual) was a really fun. Without losing sight of the fact the manuscript at the heart of the Lost Recipes of Prohibition was written during American Prohibition, older texts from druggists and physicians paved the way for later books on alcohols, syrups, tinctures, and the other preparations that lie at the heart of modern bartending. Looked at it in this light, modern cocktail books are direct descendants of medical works that were knocking since about the time Roman legions got their asses handed to them by German tribesmen at the Battle of Teutoberg Forest in 9 AD. Tracing those works was a chance to dust off my long-disused Latin and really dive into the medical and organic chemistry origins of 19th and 20th century distilling and compounding.
Rum is often associated with pirates, moonshines and bootleggers. So much so, that it is hard for modern consumers to think about it in terms of a quality sipping product. Do you think rum will ever be able to escape its past and become a distillate of sophistication, or is it doomed to always be associated with debauchery?
Rum is already enjoying an evolution among drinkers as a sipper. Whiskey drinkers in particular have cottoned to drier rums with little or no added sweetening. People are far more willing to lay out some serious money for good bottles these days and an increasing number understand that rum, one of history’s most outrageously adulterated spirits, doesn’t have to be a cheap, rotgut alternative to expensive whiskeys and brandies, but can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them. That having been said, there will always be a market for affordable spirits. I think we get tripped up when we think of “rum” rather than “rums.” Just as different cars, clothes, and homes appeal to different demographics, so too do rums. Enthusiasts and connoisseurs will pursue higher-end products while less discriminating drinkers will happily go after less sophisticated rums.
I’ve read many old mixology books, which describe elaborate ways of preparing cocktails. It makes me think that the manner in which a cocktail was prepared back then was as important as what the cocktail tasted like. What is your perspective on cocktails nowadays? Are we paying to have fantastic quality of ingredients in our ornately decorated glasses, or are we paying to see mediocre ingredients transformed into something exceptional, at the hands of true artists?
The manner in which a cocktail is prepared is always important. A drink, on the other hand, allows a lot more latitude. A properly prepared Cuba Libre, replete with oils expressed from a fresh lime shell, is heads and shoulders above a simple rum-and-Coke that skips that vital step. In fact, around our house, we make a distinction between cocktails (as well as fizzes, cobblers, and others) which we make with precision and drinks that can be sloshed together with free pours. When they’re made with merely two ingredients, we’re even likely to call them dranks. That’s not to say that a rum-and-Coke can’t be enjoyable. It’s entirely possible to make quaffable mixed drinks with mediocre ingredients. Marcos Tello, the Los Angeles bartender, once told me that he preferred that his guests not drink Long Island Ice Teas, but if that’s what they really want, he’s going to make them the best Long Island Ice Tea they’ve ever had. Techniques and ingredients matter, but so does playing to your guests’ tastes.
Even though we live in the electronic age, at our household we still enjoy and honor the printed book. There is something magical and validating about holding a book that is 100 years old. When you download and print a recipe from the internet, you don’t really know if it is authentic or not. How do you feel about this, how do you think this shapes our appreciation of the beverage craft?
I own over 3,000 food and drink books at home and use that culinary library every day. Books are not disappearing anytime soon at our house. That having been said, PDFs of scanned books and manuals proved invaluable in researching Lost Recipes of Prohibition. The stumbling block that many researchers – especially younger ones – don’t recognize is that even generally trustworthy sources such as Google Scholar are riddled with errors. Once a bad bit of data enters the stream, it gets picked up and repeated time after time. Dates, authors, and other online metadata are often wrong (or at least wrong enough not to take anything online at face value). The same speed that allows errors and misinterpretations to infiltrate common knowledge with little or no fact-checking, however, also allows far-f lung bar tenders and drink enthusiasts to share information, techniques, videos, gifts, spreadsheets with their colleagues. The net effect is that we move forward in our understanding of what to do with liquor, even if our understanding of how we got here is sometimes less than perfect.
I know you maintain a blog. Can you tell us more about what people can read about on your blog? Do you think blogs will ever fully replace printed books and why?
Like so many other earlier food and drink blogs, Rowley’s Whiskey Forge has gone dormant. At some point it may get resurrected, but for now I’ve moved on the other projects. I did, however, leave it up. The archives are available at www.whiskeyforge.com. Readers will find a lot of recipes for food and drinks, including many such as punches and pies that include rum. Because I am an historian and former museum curator, 19th century books from my own library inform many of the stories and illustrations.
Which is your favorite rum cocktail?
My reputation as a whiskey enthusiast notwithstanding, we drink an awful lot of rum around the house, often with some tiki angle. My particular favorite rum cocktail shifts with seasons and moods, but well - made Daiquiris and Mai Tais are always welcome. For instance, I made a drink for a visiting friend recently with Navy-strength Barrelflag rum from local distiller Old Harbor and juice from the heavily-producing Citrofortunella microcarpa tree in our yard. It was essentially a daiquiri with a typically San Diego/Filipino twist.
Among my favorite rum recipes from the book our Dr. Lyon’s rum shrubs, each lifted from Joseph Fleischman’s 1885 compounding manual, The Art of Blending and Compounding Liquors and Wines. Both are good over ice (maybe with a bit more rum or iced tea for an impromptu punch) or as a cordial and I’ve used them in margaritas to good effect. For each, Puerto Rican 151 is fine but Lost Spirits’s Cuban-style rum is grand.
Here’s a scaled down and slightly tweaked version for home:
• 750 ml 151 proof rum
• 3.25 oz fresh orange juice
• 3.25 oz fresh lemon juice
• Half the peels of one lemon and orange each, free from white pith
• 13 oz sugar
• 16 oz water
Combine the rum, juices, and citrus peels in a large swing-top jar. Seal and let macerate 24 hours in a cool place. Meanwhile, make a syrup by heating the sugar and water in a non-reactive pot. When cool, combine with the strained rum mixture, stir to blend, and bottle.
The West Indian shrub is identical, except that it uses lime juice in place of lemon and orange juice.
Where can your book(s) be purchased and if people want to contact you, what is the best way for them to reach you?
In addition to the usual places – Amazon, Waterstones, Barnes & Noble, etc. – readers can find my books in independent bookstores, brewing and distilling supply shops, some liquor stores and gift shops in distilleries. One of the easiest ways to find me is on Twitter where I am @mbrowley.
What advice do you have for people who want to learn about the alcoholic beverage trade?
Historic research – the kind of stuff I do – is important. We need more people to dive into old manuals, papers, and even diaries to rediscover the work that has already been done and possibly forgotten. But there’s simply no substitute for getting out there and mingling with people already in the field.
Go to bars. Go to dive bars and fancy cocktail bars. Chat with bartenders – during slow times, not when they’re crushed on a Friday or Saturday night. Visit distilleries. Take tours. Travel as widely as you can and meet locals who can teach you where and what to drink while you’re away from home. If you don’t already, have a dozen or so cocktail recipes up your sleeve that you know how to make a moment ’s notice. And sample, sample, sample.
Even bad rum has value if it does nothing more than teach us what it is we like so much about good rum!