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Drinks Pairings

"Boardwalk Empire" State of Drink

Sep 23, 2011 | By Jack Bettridge
Photo/Macall B. Polay/HBO
Glenn Fleshler, center, as notorious bootlegger George Remus with Greg Antonacci, left, as Chicago mob boss Johnny Torrio and Stephen Graham as Al Capone.

How do you celebrate the season premiere of a television show centered on the Prohibition era? By taking a drink, of course.

That's the premise behind the promotions for two separate whiskies as HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" starts it second season on Sunday. Canadian Club and Templeton Rye, both of which have historic connections to the dry era that ensued after America's 18th Amendment took effect in 1920, are suggesting a libation may go best with the return of the critically acclaimed cable series.

"Boardwalk Empire," which is beginning its second season, follows the career of Nucky Thompson, the political boss of the wide-open town of Atlantic City, New Jersey. Thompson, played by Steve Buscemi, is not-so-loosely based on the real-life Enoch "Nucky" Johnson, who decided to create an American playground at the seaside resort by allowing certain vices-alcohol, gambling and prostitution-to flourish there (for a price) even as they were outlawed.   

Canadian Club, a whisky that, with that nation's spirit in general, got a definite boost from Prohibition, is selling limited-edition "Boardwalk Empire" packages with its six-year-old bottling. The bottle ($13.99) comes with a logoed flask wrapped in a branded necker.

For its part, Templeton Rye has created a viewing-party guide, complete with cocktail recipes, entertainment suggestions and costume advice based on the flapper fashions and dandy-ish male attire of the era. The guide is available through the blog section of the whiskey's website.

Both products can claim an important connection to the era. Canadian whisky became an American favorite during Prohibition because of the ease of smuggling it from our neighbors to the north, who were still legally allowed to make whisky. Contraband shipments began almost as soon as the Volstead Act was passed to enforce Prohibition.

Canadian whisky enjoyed a quality gap over American product even after Prohibition ended, as it took our domestic producers years to mature spirits that could compete with Canada's. Canadian Club is said to have been a favorite of bootlegger Al Capone, who plays a minor part in the television show.

The distillery operated just across the border from Detroit in Windsor, Ontario, and it's estimated that some 20,000 cases of Canadian Club were smuggled into the United States during the era that lasted from 1920 to 1933. (You can read more about this in my Wine Spectator piece on Canadian whisky.)

Templeton Rye is a craft distilled American straight rye whiskey created in 2006. The company says, however, that its recipe is based on one used in its home of Templeton, Iowa, when illicit whiskey was made there during Prohibition. The company also claims that the recipe was a favorite of Capone's. (Apparently, he was a well-rounded drinking man.)

Ironically, Canadian whisky was responsible for the long dry period experienced by American rye even after Prohibition and up until its recent vogue. Canadian, often erroneously thought to be straight rye, replaced what was originally America's whiskey of choice in the hearts of drinkers here.

This is not Canadian Club's first star turn in a television period drama. "Mad Men," the 1960s era picture of the ad industry, which has been lavished with Emmy awards for years, features the whisky as the go-to brand of the main character, Don Draper.

If you'd like a more in-depth and researched view of the dry era, watch Ken Burns's excellent "Prohibition," a three-part documentary that debuts on PBS on October 2. Of course, such a program is best viewed while having a stiff cocktail.

"I feel we're very very close to a second Prohibition here in the US. Tobacco will be outlawed within 10 years if we don't push back as cigar smokers." —September 27, 2011 18:41 PM

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