A blowtorch is an alcoholic cocktail invented by members of the 1928 Byrd Antarctic Expedition. The recipe calls for mixing lemon powder with grain alcohol and diluting the mixture with ice until it's drinkable.
As prohibition was in effect in the United States in 1928, it was illegal for American citizens to possess or consume alcohol. However, Richard Byrd got around this prohibition by requesting 2,000 gallons of alcohol for medicinal purposes. This request was fulfilled by Major Campbell, the Prohibition Administrator for New York. The large store of alcohol on board the expedition's flag ship, City of New York, caused significant excitement among members of the press.
On the day the expedition departed for Antarctica, Byrd became angry when a reporter from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle pressed him to explain the vast stores of liquor on board the ship. He replied:
“Just when we are starting, I can hardly afford to discuss things that are not so. I have issued the order that there is to be absolutely no intoxicating liquor aboard except for medicinal purposes, and that this alcohol is the be kept under lock and key by the medical officer of the expedition. It has been my rule on Arctic expeditions to request the personnel to drink no intoxicating liquors after the expedition starts, as it is my opinion that it decreases the efficiency in a cold climate by giving a false sense of warmth. It is true that this expedition will need nearly pure alcohol for some of the instruments to keep the fluid from freezing in the very cold temperature."
However, even the newspapers understood that most of the alcohol was destined for recreational use. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle made a joke that Byrd would have to keep a careful watch on the prescription forms issued to the men for their "medicine." There was legitimate use for the grain alcohol, as it was required to develop their camera film before it froze.
Types of liquor taken on the journey
Various newspapers reported the cargo for the City of New York, Byrd's flagship on the expedition, as including a total of 2,000 gallons of "choice liquor" or "hard stuff" as cargo. Considering the Prohibition Administrator's source of alcohol was stocked from whatever they had confiscated from illegal bootlegging, not all the liquor requested was provided in the desired amounts.
Byrd's request to the Prohibition Administrator
- Grain alcohol - 1,000 gallons
- Rum - 400 gallons
- Sherry - 100 gallons
- Champagne - 100 quarts
- Rye whiskey
- Burgundy wine
Actual liquor provided
- Grain alcohol - 1,000 gallons
- Port wine - 400 gallons
- Champagne - 100 gallons
Invention of the blowtorch
Although the crew had a sizable stock of liquor with them, the majority of the stores were probably consumed during the voyage to Antarctica or simply left behind on the ship while they commenced exploration of the continent. In any case, it is evident there was no liquor readily available when the team wintered over at the Little America base.
Dr. F. Dana Coman, the expedition's physician, and the man with the keys to the liquor supply, took some of the grain alcohol and mixed it with the lemon powder and the crushed orange juice concentrate. The men dubbed this extremely potent drink a "blowtorch." Bryd himself participated in the festivities and every couple of weeks, he would authorize a tub of blowtorches to be made up and a party held to help the men relax and unwind during the long winter.
Things got especially bad during one three-week midwinter drinking binge. Drinking contests broke out between the men, most notoriously between Danny Davies and Larry Gould, who got carried away and ordered everyone to "get cock-eyed drunk." The drinking and partying lasted until 4:00am in a "spectacular and riotous drunken orgy."
According to Paul A. Siple: "A few others drank as gentlemen."
Prior to the expedition, Richard Byrd asked The Insulin Company to develop a dried fruit powder that contained vitamin C in an effort to prevent scurvy. The Byrd expedition carried large quantities of lime juice and lemon powders. The Eli Lilly company also provided crushed "jellied" orange juice that was the first vitamin C infused orange juice concentrate in the world. However, these supplements generally went unused as the crew met their daily vitamin C requirement by consuming fresh seal meat during the long winter.
This gave them freedom to utilize the fruit powders for more creative purposes.
To make a truly authentic blowtorch, the ingredients are:
- 1.5 fl oz grain alcohol
- 1 packet crystallized lemon juice
- 3 fl oz orange juice concentrate
During the Second Byrd Expedition, Stuart Paine noted that the geologic team leader, Quin Blackburn mixed "a whole pot of Lemon" with sherry and the team ate it as ice cream.
Owing to the difficulty in acquiring grain alcohol and "lemon powder" to make a truly authentic blowtorch, a modern variation of the recipe has been created for those wishing to get a taste of the early days of Antarctic exploration.
- 1.5 fl oz vodka
- 1 tsp powdered lemonade mix
- 3 fl oz orange juice conentrate