Lost Cocktail Culture: Navy Drinks from the Panama Canal Zone
We explore the bars in the Panama Canal Zone that were frequented by American servicemen before World War II.
I should probably preface what I’m going to say by reminding everyone that there used to be a piece of American territory called the Panama Canal Zone. Running right through the middle of that country, it extended five miles from the Canal on either side, including mountains and jungles and swamps and lakes (or slices of them), along with towns full of Panamanians who, back in 1903 when the thing was arranged, suddenly found themselves Americans, and just as suddenly found themselves Panamanian again in 1979, when we gave it back.
In the meanwhile, we ran the Canal, collected the tolls and hoped like hell that nobody took it from us.
Back in those days before Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles, long-range jet bombers, nuclear submarines and whatever nastiness is lurking up there in geosynchronous orbit that they don’t want us to know about, the Panama Canal was a serious military asset. With the Canal, the U.S. Navy only had to build one huge fleet, not two: if we got attacked on our Atlantic side, we could quickly bring reinforcing ships in from the Pacific, and vice versa.
But that meant that there was a significant chance that, should the world go mad and everybody start shooting at each other, some dawn would draw back the curtain of night to reveal a fleet of hostile battleships and all their supporting vessels anchored off of Colón, on the Caribbean side of the Canal, or Panama City, on the Pacific side.
Even if they didn’t sail right into it, landing troops as they went, a couple of hours of shelling by the battlewagons’ massive guns—these things shot projectiles 12 inches, 14 inches, even 16 or 18 inches in diameter that weighed more than a Lincoln Navigator—and the Canal would be blocked by sunken ships and the locks and pumping stations that made the whole thing work would be turned into modern art. Assuming that day was anytime from the mid-1930s on, then swarms of dive- and torpedo-bombers would take off from aircraft carriers and take care of the ships and facilities further up the Canal. It would be months before those reinforcements could arrive.
The U.S. government didn’t want that to happen, so they built forts and bases and airfields and barracks and whatever else was needed to keep the Canal safe and American. The forts had their own enormous guns, the Navy bases were home to all kinds of patrol ships and submarines, and the airfields were stocked with long-range planes to keep an eye open for that hypothetical fleet (this was before radar, so if you wanted to find something you had to actually go out and look for it).
All that defending took a lot of manpower, and come Saturday night that manpower was god-damned thirsty. The work was hard and boring and Panama was (and is) very hot and very humid. The Canal Zone itself was, of course, dry—even after Prohibition, the paternalists who ran American interests abroad saw to that. But parts of Colón and Panama City lay outside the Zone, and they had bars—indeed, there was even a street in the former called “Bottle Alley,” and that was a fair description.
Some of those bars tried to avoid the “white wave,” as the gush of white-clad sailors on liberty was known. Bilgray’s Tropic, the best-known bar in Colón, preferred to cater to the local business community, or at least its sportier members, plus tourists and travelers and sports and gamblers of all stripes. It’s not that the establishment’s owner Max Bilgray excluded servicemen entirely—he was a profane, tough Austrian who had once rounded up a couple of armed robbers at gunpoint when they tried to loot the bar he ran outside of Chicago, back before Prohibition. But business was business, and if he let men in uniform in they had to be on their best behavior. It was a place to find officers, not gunner’s mates.
On the other hand, Kelley’s Ritz, the best-known bar in Panama City, welcomed any rank of sailor, soldier, or even Marine. If they got rough, the proprietor, Mamie, who was as big and rough as any of her clientele, would put the offending swabbie, dogface or gyrene in a headlock, drag him to the door, and pitch him out on his ass. Then the floorshow—as smutty as she could get away with—and the taxi-dancing would resume. (If she wasn’t there, anyway, she was probably up in New Orleans, where for a time she ran the Old Absinthe House.)
Most of the bars that lived off of the white wave had the reputation for being anonymous shot-and-a-beer joints, bare-bones places whose very names are lost to time. But then there’s Kresch’s Place, on Bolivar Avenue in Colón, just around the corner from Bottle Alley. Isaac Kresch, its owner, was a Polish Jew with an unusually high-toned resume for a Colón bottle-jockey: before opening the bar in 1936, he had—or so he claimed—14 years behind the stick in Paris, Monte Carlo, Rome and South America. We know he catered to servicemen because of something else he did that was unorthodox: he published a drink book.
At 2 ¾ inches by 4 1/8 inches, Kresch’s Place, as the work in question is titled, is tiny. But this cheaply-printed little 112-page paperback—really, just a fat brochure—is one of the most valuable drink books I own. It’s valuable because it’s very, very rare. There’s no doubt his was a white-wave bar: right there in the four-color panorama that graces the cover you can pick out a couple of ordinary sailors, a soldier and an Army officer, all drinking under the pines alongside the lightly-dressed women and shifty civilians. Then there are the drinks—but we’ll get to them.
Now, you would think that a white-wave bar had no business putting out a drink book in the first place, and if it did, it’s difficult to see what use its patrons would have had for the thing: Navy ships were dry and so were the Army bases in the Zone, so it’s not like the servicemen who thronged his place would be playing around with the recipes back in their quarters. But who knows? Because the book is definitely aimed right at them.
We know that because of the drinks: of the booklet’s 138 recipes, nestled in there among the booze ads, beer ads, toasts, random poems and song lyrics, 24 are explicitly dedicated to military institutions: forts, bases, ships, submarines, naval air squadrons, even the MPs out of tiny Fort de Lesseps, which housed a pair of six-inch guns and a large swimming pool (ok, life in Panama wasn’t all bad) at the tip of the Colón peninsula. Most of the remaining drinks are standards, but there are a few other originals dedicated to various individuals, some of whom sound suspiciously like they might have known their way around a parade ground. Blackie Holland and Shagg Stebbins, for example, each of whom get a cocktail. Research on them comes up dry, but if I had to guess I’d have them pegged for Chief Petty Officers or Gunnery Sergeants.
Now, I can’t say for sure if all the crew of, say, the S-44, an S-42 class submarine stationed at the Coco Solo naval base, enjoyed Kresch’s U.S.S. 44 Special, with its lime juice, Old Tom gin and sloe gin, but after sailing in that boat I would have. (What were the problems of the S-42s, according to Admiral Hyman Rickover, the grand old man of America’s “silent service”? “Faulty, sooty, dangerous and repellent engineering.”)
In fact, by 1939, when the booklet was published, Americans could see the war that lay just over the horizon as clearly as anybody else could, and while the armed services were still volunteers only, there was serious talk of instituting the draft as a precaution. Many young men from the kind of background that didn’t normally lead to the rough and tumble service life were volunteering so they could have a better choice of assignments. That meant that service culture was starting to get a little sophistication, and who knows, maybe cocktails at Kresch’s counted as part of that. Or maybe, just maybe, the ordinary soldiers, sailors and Marines were like any other human and if you gave them a good drink instead of a bad one they took it and enjoyed the hell out of it.
In any case, war soon came, and some of the ships and squadrons scattered, while others stayed right there to defend the Canal. Of the ten ships that get cocktails named after them in Kresch’s book, one—that same S-44—was sunk in the South Pacific, and another, the airplane tender U.S.S. Gannett, was sunk by a German submarine not far from the Zone.
Of the drinks, the best I’ve tried is the one christened after the U.S.S. Mallard, a Lapwing-class minesweeper built during World War I and converted in 1928 to a submarine rescue ship. It was stationed at Coco Solo throughout the war and presumably the young men in white who crewed it survived to drink other, and I daresay better, cocktails back home in Brooklyn and Keokuk and Bangor and Gunnison and wherever else they came from.
But still, Kresch’s cocktail (unless it was the creation of his head bartender, Max) isn’t half bad—nutty and mellow and surprisingly sophisticated.
- 1.5 oz 7-9 year old Panamanian rum (Colombian and Venezuelan rums will also do)
- 1 oz Martini & Rossi (or Rossi & Martini, as the recipe says) Red Vermouth
- .5 oz Bénédictine
- 1 dash Absinthe
- 2 dashes Angostura Bitters
- Glass: Cocktail
- Garnish: Lemon peel twist
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker and fill with ice. Shake well (as the recipe specifies) or stir well (better) and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. The recipe specifies no garnish but it won’t hurt to twist a little lemon peel over the top. (Note that the original recipe only calls for an ounce of rum; this is a little better.)