Mobile Spirits

Mobile has been many things to many people, but never a hotbed of temperance. In Colonial times, the home brew of choice was often a pale wine made from native grapes. Luckily, being a port town, better stuff was occasionally available to satisfy thirsty Mobilians. Alcohol was fairly cheap to manufacture and easy to transport. It rarely spoiled when stored or shipped. Large stocks of wine, brandy and port were typically listed on shipping invoices for the colonists.

In those days, there was no prohibition against alcohol consumption, except perhaps during Lent, and residents had many reasons for needing a drink now and then. Most in French Colonial Mobile lived rather hard lives with few, if any, luxuries to ease their lot. Home, whether originally France or the St. Lawrence Valley, was a long way away. Women were scarce. Disease, injury and sudden death were always close at hand. A few drinks helped ease the burdens of isolation as little else could. Coming from a European culture, Mobile’s founders (and later the English and Spanish colonists) also appreciated drink as one of the joys of life. Journals tell us the French celebrated various annual events, such as the king’s birthday, and some form of pre-Lenten revelry, which might be the progenitor of our Mardi Gras. It is naive to imagine that such occasions were commemorated soberly.

Pass the Bottle

Each fall, the French welcomed Native Americans to a gathering, or “congress, ” as it was known, to trade deerskins and furs for manufactured goods from Europe. Problem was, the colonists rarely had enough of these items to satisfy the American Indians. Generous supplies of alcohol helped bridge the gap. The native peoples, genetically predisposed to rapid intoxication, often got quite drunk, to the disgust and the advantage of their European counterparts. During the bargaining, wine, rum, beer and probably other inebriates flowed freely. The quality was less important than the quantity, which is often true of modern Mardi Gras balls.

In the period of English rule, the role of rum, readily available from Jamaica, was all-important to the Native American trade. In 1772, a Choctaw chief protested the flow of “rum that pours in upon our nation like a Great Sea from Mobile.” Sadly, there is no evidence that the British or their Spanish successors eliminated, or even controlled, this trade good and commerce facilitator,   much in the same way the British foisted opium on the Chinese leading up to the Opium Wars of the 19th century.

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The United States seized Mobile from the Spanish in 1813. Not long afterwards, its citizens poured into Mobile and the eastern Mississippi Territory (Alabama after 1817). The newcomers brought along their distinctive drinks, whiskey and corn liquor, and with them, a different economic engine. Cotton production replaced the American Indian trade. Mobile, at the mouth of two rivers, the link between the Cotton Belt and the sea, experienced an incredible boom.

As the population grew, so did the consumption of alcohol. There soon were innumerable grog shops catering to sailors, and bars, high and low, for others. Mobile was not unique in this; people drank, often to excess, all across the nation’s frontier. It was a form of escape in hard times and recreation in the better days. In Mobile’s case, imports of alcohol were an important part of the port’s commerce. As in Colonial times, people made their own booze, but moonshine was far more important in rural Alabama than in the city.

Ring in the New Year

Men break for the lunch wagon at Alabama Port.

Blake McNeely Collection,  The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, USA Archives

On the eve of Jan. 1, 1831, the city’s most famous drinking party occurred. A group of young men, celebrating all night, took cowbells and rakes and paraded about making a lot of racket. Eventually the mayor persuaded the fellows, many of whom worked in the cotton trade, to have breakfast, with lots of coffee, at his house. Michael Krafft, the ringleader of this merry band, was taken home to sleep it off in the building on Springhill Avenue that is now home to the Mobile Medical Museum. The participants, deciding that it had all been great fun, organized themselves into the Cowbellion de Rakin Society, and resolved to do it all again on subsequent New Year’s Eves. So was born the modern mystic society tradition, which had amusement and booze as its foundations.

Before the Civil War, there were many other societies and processions that enlivened the festivities of Twelfth Night. The volunteer fire companies also became an important part of the social scene in Mobile for most of the 19th century. Alcohol flowed at their balls and banquets throughout the year.

The Influence of Religion, Race, Class and War

While the abstinence edicts of the Great Awakening were energizing Protestants in 1830s America, they had little appeal in Mobile to many Christian groups. Catholics, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians were not adverse to drink; Methodists were divided; and Jews had no interest in the matter. Besides, most Mobilians were not churchgoers; that also had been true in Bienville’s day. Blacks, free and enslaved, were attracted to the Baptist Church, but slaves usually attended their master’s church, if he had one. There was a general agreement in the white community that blacks should not be allowed to drink, though many did make and consume their own concoctions.

Men gather outside popular hangout Billy Biddle’s Saloon on Royal Street, c. 1895.

Courtesy of Raymond Brown, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, USA Archives

In the late 1850s, 20 years after Krafft’s famous party, a visitor complained of Mobile’s debauchery: “From dark to dawn lawlessness stalked abroad rampant in Mobile. Gangs of drunken boatmen, sailors and reckless adventurers staggered through the streets.” The comment, of course, focused on working-class drinking, not on the habits of the upper class.

When war came in the spring of 1861, the Union began efforts to blockade the Confederacy’s seaports, including Mobile. Within 18 months, little alcohol was getting through. Upper-class Mobile, which had a reputation of remaining rather festive during the Civil War, had to cope with alcohol-free balls and parties. This was counted as a significant sacrifice, which continued throughout the long, sad years of war. After the surrender of the city in April 1865, few were disposed to celebrate war’s end, or had the spirits to do so.

Reconstruction, Prohibition, Rum-running

The years after the war were also difficult for the city. The economy was stagnant, even failing. Many skilled people left and a wave of newly liberated rural freedmen replaced them. The former slaves had few skills suited to an urban environment but were hopeful that Reconstruction would bring them new opportunities. It did not, and whites eventually enacted laws that nearly re-enslaved blacks. A prominent feature of this mood was the stringent limit of alcohol sales to blacks. As the century drew to a close, many Southerners favored Prohibition as the only means of keeping alcohol out of black hands.

Mobilians were not wholeheartedly attracted to this movement, as it would clearly hamper their Mardi Gras which, by the 1880s, had replaced most Twelfth Night celebrations. Liquor manufacturers and dealers even sponsored floats.

Men load confiscated Cuban rum onto an armed truck at the waterfront during Prohibition, showing the serious crackdown onrum-running by the Feds.
Erik Overbey Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, USA Archives

Mobile’s large German population also had its own breweries of which locals were quite proud. Saloons all over town carried on a lively trade. There were no blue laws: Businesses set their own rules and hours. Visitors from other parts of Alabama and the rural South, and Mobilians in general, were often scandalized at these institutions, but they always had been for one reason or another.

The city, however, could not escape the rising tide of the temperance movement, and its signature cause, Prohibition. Finally, in 1907, the state passed a prohibition law, despite Mobile’s strong objection. The law was locally ineffective, repealed, then subsequently reenacted. The breweries were too large to conceal and eventually closed, but the sale and public consumption of alcohol in Mobile continued largely unaffected, even after the national Prohibition amendment passed after World War I.

It was no secret that the Port City had a red light district, where liquor flowed freely, right up to the American entry into World War I in 1917. Untaxed booze was often confiscated there and elsewhere, and the police chief saw that it was delivered to Mayor Pat Lyons’ home. Corruption was nothing new in the Port City, then or now.

During the early 1920s, Mobile was deeply involved in the illegal importation of whiskey from nearby British colonies. Rumrunners brought in thousands of gallons of alcohol, most of which was transshipped by various means to the interior of the United States. Of course, much of it was consumed locally until a massive raid in 1923 confiscated truckloads of contraband and led to the arrests of many prominent Mobilians for their part in a whiskey ring. The most prominent name associated with the prosecution was Hugo Black, who subsequently was elected to the U.S. Senate, and appointed to the Supreme Court in 1937. Actually the lead prosecutor was Aubrey Boyles, who was eventually ruined for his efforts. The powerful Frank Boykin was charged and convicted, but after years in and out of courts his conviction was overturned, as were all the others. For a while in the ’20s Mobile ostensibly accepted Prohibition, but even the pretense was unnecessary when the law was repealed in the early ’30s.

Back to Business

With the repeal of Prohibition, Alabama established state liquor stores in counties that voted to allow them. Mobile did, and ABC stores soon opened here. The sale of alcohol in bars and restaurants was permissible, subject to restrictions that have been gradually liberalized in the decades since. Mardi Gras balls could once again legally provide guests with drinks. By 1940, socializing seemed to be back to normal.

A line forms outside the ABC Store on the corner of Jackson and Dauphin streets, c. 1940s. Erik Overbey Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, USA Archives

Then came the run-up to World War II. Outsiders flooded into town, and the ABC stores were swamped with new customers, civilian and military. Mardi Gras was suspended for the duration, but that didn’t help much. By 1943, demand for alcohol outstripped supply as the metropolitan population doubled.

When the war ended, Mobile had become the permanent home to many newcomers from inland rural areas. Many of them found the city’s traditional toleration of alcohol consumption evidence of serious sin. Evangelicals had tried before to evict “demon rum” from the Port City: Billy Sunday had held a revival here that lasted for weeks in 1927, but residents didn’t succumb. In the post-war years, despite other aspects of life “straightening up, ” Mobile’s long partiality to alcohol continued, especially since many new Mardi Gras societies were also being founded.

Today, people can buy wine and beer when they get gas or groceries, and ABC stores are fairly common around town. Some advocate replacing the ABC system with privately owned liquor stores, and some private establishments do sell liquor by the bottle today, but their prices are significantly higher than in the state stores.

Mobile has been active in the Free the Hops movement that favors reform of Alabama law to permit specialty beer. Often these craft beers are sold in bigger bottles or have more alcohol per volume. Already, thanks to the Free the Hops lobby, a wider range of gourmet beers are on supermarket shelves, or available at bars and clubs in Mobile’s lower Dauphin Street entertainment district as well as watering holes across the Bay. Indeed, the state is moving closer to the attitude the port city has always had about alcohol. It is clear, with all its problems and pleasures, alcohol in ol’ Mobile is here to stay.

Old Fashioned

The Old Fashioned is a cocktail in the truest sense of the word, which is to say a spirit (in this case traditionally rye, but more popularly bourbon), sugar, bitters and water. The origin of the drink is highly disputed and basically unknown. Being very liquor forward, it’s not for the faint of heart or casual drinker. — Roy Clark,  The Haberdasher, 113 Dauphin St. 436-0989.

1 sugar cube
Angostura bitters, several dashes
1 small orange zest
2 ounces of whiskey
(or rye or bourbon)
orange slice, to garnish
cherry, to garnish

1. Place a sugar cube in the bottom of a rocks glass. Saturate with several dashes of Angostura bitters, along with a small piece of orange zest.
2. Add a splash of water and muddle the sugar until dissolved.
3. Add whiskey (rye or bourbon), then ice.
4. Stir until well chilled. Garnish with orange and cherry.

Pimm’s Cup

A Pimm’s Cup is somewhat like a gumbo: there are probably countless recipes for it, and none of them are wrong. It was made famous at New Orlean’s Napoleon House. — Roy Clark, The Haberdasher

1 tablespoon of cubed cucumber
1 1/2 ounces of Pimm’s No. 1
3/4 ounce of Cointreau
3/4 ounce of fresh lime juice
ginger beer
cucumber, to garnish
orange, to garnish
basil leaf, to garnish

1. Muddle cubed cucumber in a mixing glass
2. Add Pimm’s No. 1, Cointreau and fresh lime juice. Shake well.
3. Strain the mixture into a Collins’ glass with cracked ice. Top with ginger beer. Garnish with cucumber, orange and a basil leaf.

Dark and Stormy

The Dark and Stormy was a drink made popular by seamen in British Commonwealth countries such as Bermuda, where dark rum was the most easily procured spirit. Its potent and flavorful combination of the rum and ginger beer, sometimes with a splash of lime, is a spicy and complex delight. — Roy Clark, The Haberdasher

1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
1 3/4 ounce Kraken dark rum
Jamaican ginger beer
a lime wedge or wheel,
to garnish

1. Fill a rocks glass with cracked ice, fresh lime juice, Kraken dark rum, and  Jamaican ginger beer. Garnish with a lime wedge or wheel.



Supposedly the rumrunner cocktail was invented in the 1950s in a bar in Islamorada, Fla. It name comes from people or ships who brought prohibited liquior ashore. — Diane Klein, Bucky’s Birdcage Lounge, The Grand Hotel, 1 Grand Blvd. 928-9201.

1/2 ounce Bacardi
1/2 ounce Chambord
1/2 ounce Creme de Banana
1/2 ounce grenadine
1 ounce simple syrup
1 ounce fresh lime juice
Myers’s Original Rum

1.  Mix all ingredients except Meyer’s Original Rum in a shaker, then pour into a glass with ice.
2. Float with Myer’s Original Rum. Garnish with orange slice and a cherry.

The French 75

The French 75 was first concocted in 1915 at the New York Bar in Paris, and most likely introduced to Americans by Arnaud Casanave around 1918 at his restaurant,  Arnaud’s. The name comes from the combination of gin, lemon, sugar and champagne’s ability to hit you like a round of large ammunition, specifically the 75mm field gun. It’s rumored that it was the drink of choice among French officers preparing for battle in WWI.  — Roy Clark, The Haberdasher

1 oz. dry gin
¾ oz. each of fresh lemon juice and simple syrup

1. Shake ingredients together with ice and strain into a chilled champagne flute.
2. Top with champagne and garnish with a twist of lemon.

Bucky’s Mint Julep

The mint julep has been around since the 1800s. At the Grand Hotel, the drink was made famous by Aura J. “Bucky” Miller. For 61 years, Bucky was a staple at The Grand; most of his time spent as a bartender or a server. Bucky died in 2002, but his memory and his legendary mint julep live on. — Randi McDole, Bucky’s Birdcage Lounge, The Grand Hotel

5 – 6 fresh mint leaves
1 ounce simple syrup (made from 1:1 ratio of sugar to water)
1 3/4 ounce Maker’s
Mark bourbon
maraschino cherry, to garnish
mint leaf, to garnish
confectioners sugar,  to garnish

1. Place mint leaves in a julep cup or glass and add simple syrup.
2. Muddle lightly until the mint gives off its aroma.
3. Add bourbon. Mix gently.
4. Fill the glass with crushed ice. Garnish with a maraschino cherry and an additional mint leaf sprinkled with confectioners sugar.


Sunset Belle

The ringing of the sunset bell is a tradition here at The Grand, which signifies the end of the workday.  Each day, at a half hour before sunset we ring the bell in celebration of another day.  The bell is located right outside of Bucky’s; a prime vantage point to enjoy a beautiful sunset. — Randi McDole, Bucky’s Birdcage Lounge, The Grand Hotel

2 ounces sweet tea vodka
1 ounces simple syrup
1 lemon wedge
4 fresh mint leaves
1 sprig of mint, to garnish

1. Place 1 scoop of ice into a mixing tin.
2. Add vodka, simple syrup, mint leaves. Squeeze and drop lemon wedge into.
3. Shake contents vigorously and transfer into drinking glass. Garnish with a lemon wheel and a fresh mint sprig.

Bucky’s Strawberry Mojito

1.5 oz light rum
1 oz simple syrup (a ratio of 1:1 water to sugar…until sugar is dissolved completely)
2 lime wedges
5 to 6 mint leaves
1 medium-to-large ripened strawberry (hulled)

1. In mixing glass, muddle strawberry, mint, lime and simple syrup.  Add rum.
2. Add 1 scoop of ice and shake.
3. Pour entire contents of shaker into glass and top with club soda.
4. Garnish with fresh strawberry and a mint sprig.

text by michael thomason • cocktail photos by Elise Poché

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