With Friday marking the 75th anniversary of the end of Prohibition, we checked in on the state of booze at one of the few standing relics of the era. The '21' Club hired beverage director Phil Pratt as a sommelier twelve years ago. But Pratt was familiar enough with the iconic spot (whose storied origins began in 1922 as a speakeasy in Greenwich Village) to have had his own 21st birthday at the current location in midtown. For years, families have stored stellar vintages in the private wine cellar accessible only by a hidden door the better to protect their stash from the likes of Eliot Ness. The practice was suspended fifteen years ago to make room for '21''s expanded wine list (it grew to 1,200 bottles from 350), but there are still leftover holdings. We asked Pratt what's in the cellar and how '21' appeals to drinkers in the 21st century.
What sorts of wines were stored in the cellar around Prohibition, and do you still have some of them?
For the most part, people were going for bang for the buck; mainly it was booze down here. [But] there were a lot of wines from the nineteenth century and they had some of the big names: the Lafites, the Latours. All the great first growths. Quality Champagnes. A lot of marvelous Burgundies. Since I've been here, about the oldest thing we would have would be from '59. This was a business; it wasn't about keeping, it was about selling. I think it was in the fifties or sixties, they had a cache of these wines that were so old that the labels had come off and they had a grab bag — you paid X amount of dollars for a bottle of something and you were sort of stuck with it, whether it was a great bottle or one that had gone over the hill. And that's how they sort of ran through that stock.
Where was '21' getting illegal booze?
We were importing through — I think it was Canada. They would bring in Ballantine's, Roederer, Hine, which is a cognac, and they would sell brand-name stuff as opposed to bathtub gin. And as a result of that, after the end of Prohibition, '21' started an importing company called 21 Brands. They were actually the first ones to bring Roederer and Cristal into the United States after Prohibition, along with Ballantine's scotch and a number of other products. 21 Brands was dissolved at some point. Next door to us is the Museum of Television and Radio, and that was actually the townhouse they used to house 21 Brands.
Do people still have personal bottles stored in the cellar for special occasions?
We still have wine from people from when that program was active. This program was ended about fifteen years ago and most of the wine that’s here is not going to get any better, and that's probably the kindest way to put it. There's some '71 Calon Segur that's drinking very well. There are some '61s that some of the people have: Lafites, Moutons, Latours. There's some Château d'Yquem, that's the ne plus ultra of dessert wine, and I think they're spectacular.
So the Clintons must have stored the bottle Chelsea opened for her 21st birthday before the cutoff fifteen years ago?
It was put in here when the family came up right before the end of his term and at that point the bottle was put down, so that must've been ten or twelve years ago. You make exceptions for the president of the United States.
Do people forfeit ownership when no one checks on their bottles?
The only way you would forfeit a bottle is if it started to leak. The problem that we had is that the original owners didn’t do anything to keep up with those who purchased them because pretty much it was an old-boy restaurant; everybody knew everybody. But as time moved on, they had no way to contact them. I would imagine there may be things that people don't know are here.
How can you prove that the person asking for the pricey wine is the true owner?
Everybody who purchased a bottle of wine for us and put it in private stock was sent a letter, and that acts as their receipt for the wine. They would have to have a copy of an original to do that, and the signatures and everything else. Since most of them were typed on a typewriter, it's kind of tough to fake that. They're on '21' letterhead, old heavy bond paper used in the forties and fifties.
When did the restaurant open the cellar to parties?
I was here eighteen or twenty years ago, and they were doing dinners down here. It's about 63 degrees. We don’t turn the air conditioning off, but if you put fifteen or sixteen people in there, body heat warms it up. [The temperature change] doesn't hurt the wine. We're not here to store wine for 30 years. We're here to sell that wine. If anything, it would be a minor increase in its evolution, but not enough to be a problem.
Have 21st birthday parties at '21' now become a right of passage for Upper East Side rich girls?
I wouldn’t leave it to the Upper East Side. We do 21st birthdays for boys and girls from all over the country. There are people whose families have been coming here for two or three generations. I had my 21st birthday here.
What do freshly 21-year-olds drink?
Everybody generally wants Champagne, but there are some people who will come in and have a 21st birthday and the kid doesn't want to drink; they'll have a Coca-Cola, mixed drinks. Not everyone will have a bottle of wine, much to my chagrin. We try to keep mindful of good vintages coming up on '21' so they'll be available for those folks.
Do you feel like the restaurant has lost its subversive edge to the yuppie crowd?
'21' was always a place to come and drink. Whatever you drink to accomplish that, we're really happy.
What liquor do you go through most?
Vodka is the biggest hard liquor we supply. I don't see anything else climbing up the ladder to knock it out of its place. I would prefer it was gin, myself, that's just me.