By Ron Donoho / Photos By Sara Norris
During Prohibition (1920 to 1933), F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (published in 1925) glamorized the bootlegging lifestyle of New York's social elite. Around the same time, a Los Angeles distillery owned by real-life bootlegger Alfred Hart was cranking out bottles of illegal spirits in connection with infamous mobster Al Capone.
Two such bottles recently fell into the hands of Jeff Josenhans, head mixologist and director of beverages at downtown's The U.S. Grant hotel.
"I didn't think it was legit at first," says Josenhans, who received a call from a woman claiming to have found the bottles and other antiques stamped with a "U.S. Grant" logo when cleaning out her deceased mother's Chula Vista home.
Although skeptical, Josenhans drove to check it out. After poring over rows and rows of dusty boxes, he found his prize: two bottles of "U.S. Grant" label gin with the words "Federal Law Forbids Sale" embossed into the glass. He made the woman an offer she couldn't refuse, trading her an overnight stay and dinner at Grant Grill for the bottles and some vintage glassware.
One of the bottles is now on permanent display outside Grant Grill, the hotel's lobby-level eatery. One of 12 guests who purchases bottle-service ($650) at The U.S. Grant's Gatsby-themed New Year's eve gala - a tawdry affair to be held in the subterranean Celestial Ballroom, once a Prohibition-era speakeasy called Bivouac - will win the other.
Despite the history, Josenhans says he'd crack open the bottle if he were the winner.
"It's sealed, and alcohol doesn't go bad," he says. "It's going to taste like cheap gin - not the best - but it's a very special bottle."
Thanks to Josenhans' find, not to mention a little help from Fitzgerald and Leonardo DiCaprio (who stars in the film Gatsby, which hit theatres in May), 2013 is set to end with a bang at downtown's most historic hotel.
And whoever wins The U.S. Grant's mysterious bottle of bootlegged gin is sure to make some noise for the Roaring Twenties.
The U.S. Grant
326 Broadway, Downtown