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Flavorful throwback

Downtown cocktail spot Volstead Act specializes in drinks from the days before Prohibition

Volstead Act doesn’t have the old-school ambiance of a bygone era.

The new downtown Spokane bar, named for the law that launched Prohibition, has a look that is semi-industrial and elegant, but – by design – not pretentious.

“I don’t want it to feel stuffy,” said owner Matt Goodwin, a bartender-turned-restaurateur who’s interested in the culture and cocktails of the 1920s.

It’s a period popularized by the HBO show “Boardwalk Empire,” an era, Goodwin said, when makers of moonshine took a lot of shortcuts.

“The Roaring ’20s was a really cool time,” Goodwin said. “But it comes down to the cocktail.”

A hundred years ago, he said, cocktails were simply better.

While the atmosphere at his new bar is modern, its cocktails offer a sort of step back in time, millennial takes on boozy beverages from 1920 – when the law was enacted – and earlier. The signature pre-Prohibition-style cocktails at Volstead Act feature house-pressed juices, house-made syrups, fresh herbs and garnishes, unusual liqueurs, and plenty of rum, gin and whiskey.

“We’re trying to get it back to where it was because we deserve awesome cocktails,” said Pauly Devine, 40, a self-proclaimed “cocktail nerd” and the bar manager at Volstead Act.

He doesn’t want people to feel intimidated by the bar’s 12 signature cocktails. He urges customers to ask questions.

“We’re trying to offer snobby and nerdy drinks without being snobby and nerdy,” he said. “We actually make drinks from scratch. That’s the way it was.”

The wine list includes six whites and seven reds. There’s beer, too.

But there are no pre-made, plastic-bottled, sour, margarita or cosmopolitan mixes. Nor is there vodka on the menu, as it didn’t become popular until Prohibition ended in 1933. Still, if you want a vodka martini, just ask.

“We have Redbull. We have Fireball. If that’s what you want to drink, come down and have fun,” Goodwin said. “Everyone’s welcome. We’re not exclusive.”

Still, Volstead Act’s specialty is the science of mixing spirits.

“Before Prohibition, bartenders took great pride in the liquors they used,” Goodwin said. “I want to make sure what we’re doing is perfect. I don’t want to do a B-plus. I want to make sure everything we’re doing is A-plus.”

That’s why there are only a dozen signature cocktails to start. Goodwin said he wants to perfect them before adding more.

From its Stirred and Direct list, Kentucky River, Volstead Act’s version of an Old-Fashioned, is mixed with house-made peach bitters.

And from its Shaken with Fresh Citrus list, Regal Bees Knees – gin, lemon, honey, grapefruit – is a top seller. So is El Guapo, a mix of tequila, limes, cucumber, Cholula, cracked pepper and salt. Part of the secret recipe of the tropical Pieces of Eight is aging a couple of different types of rum in an oak barrel. Kentucky Fields – made with bourbon, lemon, strawberries and cynar, an artichoke liqueur – is most popular.

“The whole idea of a craft cocktail is to have a balanced cocktail,” Goodwin said. “You don’t want any element of the cocktail to overpower another ingredient.”

It’s difficult to pinpoint when the re-emergence of pre-Prohibition-style cocktails began sweeping the United States. Cities like New York and Chicago were getting into throwback cocktail scene by 2005 and 2006. Since then, handcrafted cocktails have enjoyed success in larger metropolitan areas on the West Coast.

It took a little longer for the craft cocktail movement to make it to Spokane. “You see in the restaurant industry the farm-to-table movement. You see in the wine world people are getting local. And in the craft beer movement, you see people getting really educated and intelligent about where their beers are coming from,” Goodwin said. “The same movement that has hit the food and wine and beer industries is now jumping into cocktails.”

Goodwin, 36, is no stranger to the Spokane bar scene. He opened his first bar, Pub Club, in 2003, followed by The Blvd. House of Music, in 2004. In 2008, he opened MarQuee Lounge.

All have since closed.

“As I grow up, I try to make my establishments grow with me,” said Goodwin, a former “rum-and-Coke” bartender at Fast Eddie’s, a downtown sports bar he bought in 2011. He also owns Press, known for cocktails made from fresh-squeezed juices and its Bloody Mary bar, on the South Hill. A wood-fired craft pizza place, The Boiler Room, is slated to open soon in Five Mile.

Volstead Act opened in September. The south wall sports an enlargement of the front page of vintage newspaper, with the headline: “U.S. Voted Dry.”

Goodwin got the idea for the place after stumbling upon a speakeasy-style bar in the basement of an old hotel in Seattle’s Belltown district in 2010. “It was just the coolest place I’d ever been,” he said. “You feel like you’re stepping back 100 years in time.”

A dozen more craft cocktails will be in the works this winter. The plan is also to expand the house-made syrups, bitters and infusions along with the drink menu. Six people work at Volstead Act, including four bartenders. And the bar already has a loyal following.

“We see the same people in here three to five times a week,” Goodwin said.

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