Bad Poetry, Great Booze: The Story Of The Hidden Bootlegger's Manual
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
When Matthew Rowley's new book landed on my desk, my first reaction was, is this for real? This sounds like a hoax. The book is called "Lost Recipes Of Prohibition: Notes From A Bootlegger's Manual," and the story behind it does at first seem stranger than fiction. Matthew Rowley joins us talk about it.
MATTHEW ROWLEY: Thank you Ari.
SHAPIRO: You collect old books, and this story starts with the mystery behind a strange book that a friend gave to you. You've got that strange book right there with you now, right?
ROWLEY: I do.
SHAPIRO: Describe it for me.
ROWLEY: Well, it's - the book is a very small book. It's about five by seven inches. It's old, not ancient. There's a tear down the spine, and on the spine, it says in gold letters, "The Works Of George Sylvester Vierek: The Candle And The Flame." But Vierek was kind of a small point. There's absolutely nothing about or by him inside the book when you open it.
SHAPIRO: Open the cover of the book and tell us how this book is not what it appears to be.
ROWLEY: This book has no printed page on it. It's all handwritten notes.
SHAPIRO: And what are the notes?
ROWLEY: They're for recipes for alcohol and booze and cordials, whiskeys, absinthes, gin. They're written in English, German and Latin. So it was a surprise to find this thing, but I knew immediately when I started flipping through here that this was no book of dreary 1912 poetry, but something much more exciting.
SHAPIRO: Did you immediately say, oh, this was a bootlegger's manual from Prohibition?
ROWLEY: I've been researching illicit liquor for about 25 years. I specialize in folk distilling and moonshining. And so as I flipped through here, a lot of the ingredients were familiar. It wasn't until I started going through the ephemera tucked in there that I realized that this was from the 1920s, it was from New York. It was from Harlem. And, in fact, I'd nailed it down to a specific address and name.
SHAPIRO: Tell me about that man.
ROWLEY: (Laughter). That man was Victor Alfred Lyon. Lyon was born in Germany and moved as a child to New York. His father and mother had met at the University of Heidelberg where they were both physicians. And when Lyon was a physician in New York - and he became one as well, as did his brother, it was sort of the family business - he started keeping this secret notebook.
SHAPIRO: So why would somebody like him have kept a book like this?
ROWLEY: Well - and that's an answer that I could never nail down exactly, but there are two possibilities. The one, which seems likely to me, is that he was dabbling in sales. He has notes about where to get bottles and how much labels cost. And there are lists of prices for essential oils and suppliers of bottles and corks. The other thing about his recipes is that most of them have at least some kind of tangential medicinal aspect. You know, medicinal medical whiskey was considered one of the exceptions in Prohibition. You could get whiskey if you had a doctor's prescription. I suspect that what he was doing was making some of these for his clients. And remember, in 1920s, there were big bootleggers, syndicates, but there were also small people, you know - a hotel concierge, a bellhop, a mother down the street. People bootlegged on a very small scale, kind of like the way people might drive Uber now or Lyft. You know, it's not your main job, but you can get a little extra on the side if you do that.
SHAPIRO: As someone who has studied illicit booze for a couple decades at least, was there a recipe in this book that especially surprised you?
ROWLEY: There were a few. One of them in particular is a really elegant spirit. It's called iced kummul. And kummul is - it's also now sometimes called kimmul. It's a caraway-flavored cordial.
SHAPIRO: Sort of like a licoricey, anise kind of taste.
ROWLEY: Yeah, there are other - fennel and anise are often in there too, and sometimes other flavors like lemon or rose or neroli or something like that. But this particular recipe - and he's got one version in English and one in German - it calls for putting a hot, supersaturated sugar solution in a nice, beautiful clear bottle, just letting it cool undisturbed, and over a few days, very delicate little sugar crystals start to form on the inside of the bottle. The whole thing looks rimed with frost. You decant that, and then you fill it with your kummul. Or, you could do rye whiskey or, you know, creme de menthe or whatever else you like, but it's a really beautiful presentation that has almost entirely died away. We just don't do this anymore.
SHAPIRO: And what happened to the good doctor after Prohibition once alcohol was legal again?
ROWLEY: His notebook drops off about 1931, and Victor Lyons, despite my best efforts as research, I have never found a photo of him. He shows up in a few alumni directories. He lives in the same house for decades. By 1961, he's not practicing and by 1963, he drops off the records. Presumably he has died childless, unmarried and without leaving anything to posterity.
SHAPIRO: Except this book.
ROWLEY: Except this one little book, yeah.
SHAPIRO: That's Matthew Rowley. His new book is called "Lost Recipes Of Prohibition: Notes From A Bootlegger's Manual."
Great talking to you. Thanks a lot.
ROWLEY: And you as well, Ari, thank you for having me.
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