Harlem is a rich and historical place in whiskey lore dating back to the Wecksquaesgeek Indians to settlers in the Dutch in the 1600’s to prohibition from the 1920’s to 1930’s during the Harlem renaissance.
In fact, during the 1920’s to 1930’s at Connie’s Inn “the high class joint” on 7th Avenue and 132nd Street, the standard drink was called a “shorty” because it could fit in your pocket!
In the book The History of Harlem… settlers from the Netherlands around the mid 1600’s talk of drinking whiskey at:
… The most celebrated resort in Harlem now was Johnuas Vervaleens Tavern, near 123rd Street and 1st Avenue Klein Bier (small Beer), Spanish Wine and Rum were the drinks in those days …the custom has pretty much kept us in Harlem, except in a change of beverages, One in particular, “40 Rod Whiskey,” that is a full range whiskey that would kill a man, if he comes within its circle ….
In the book Bootleggers and Beer Barons of the Prohibition Era reports that a four once bottle of whiskey sold for fifty cents to a dollar in an upscale club. A shorty gave a drinker more bang for the buck than a mixed drink a cocktail with an ounce of whiskey cost up to half a dollar so four ounces of whiskey cost two doors if mixed. High Whiskey connoisseurs preferred Mexico’s Old 99 made locally or a pre-Volstead product called Chicken Cock whiskey.
Originally established in 1856 in Paris, Kentucky, Chicken Cock whiskey quickly became one of the larger bourbon brands of the 19th century. Forced to move production to Canada when Prohibition started, Chicken Cock was smuggled across the border to the USA in tin cans, where it rose to fame as a popular serve at some of the era’s most famous speakeasies, including the legendary Cotton Club in Harlem.
At the Cotton Club, when patrons ordered a “Chicken Cock,” waiters would present the tin can tableside and ceremoniously open it to reveal the bottle of Chicken Cock Whiskey inside. Duke Ellington writes about Chicken Cock in his memoirs, referring to the:
“brand that was served in a tin can.”
At a rumored $15 per bottle Chicken Cock wasn’t for the light of pocket, but it was a small price to pay to secure a prime table near some of the greatest musicians of the era.
Those who were not so lucky to drink the better whiskeys poor folks drank a:
“…raw, homemade whiskey,”
talked about in Two Guns from Harlem.
The story of whiskey in Harlem continues to be told.
Photo credit: Connie’s Inn, Harlem, March 5, 1932, with a crowd waiting outside. Via source.