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Video Vault | Prohibition helped kick-start organized crime in Las Vegas

Cocktail Noir.jpg

The Las Vegas Strip certainly is well known for being a hotbed of organized crime, skimming and hidden ownership from the 1940s into the 1980s. One of the main reasons the wise guys gut here can be traced back to booze.

"The Mafia really got its big kick start with Prohibition," says author Scott Deitche. "Obviously not only with the bootlegging, but providing illicit alcohol across the country."

Deitche is the author of "Cocktail Noir: From Gangsters and Gin Joints to Gumshoes and Gimlets", which connects the dots between the vices.

"Mobsters, they made the money, they knew how to party," says Deitche. "They would drink, they would gamble. A lot of them were degenerate gamblers. A lot of them were alcoholics."

That love of liquor was a trait that an eventual client of Las Vegas Attorney Oscar Goodman used to his advantage.

"One mob boss, Nicky Scarfo from Philadelphia, would actually take some of his underlings out and get them drunk to kind of ply them for information," explains Deitche. "To find out if anyone was ratting or making moves against him."

Goodman later won acquittal for Scarfo in a death-penalty murder case.

Bootlegging busts

When gambling was first legalized in Nevada in 1931, selling booze was still a crime. But local papers carried frequent stories of bootlegging busts.

"Speakeasies, saloons and bar owners were very intertwined with the mob," says mixologist Jair Bustillos of Southern Nevada Wine and Spirits. "And anybody that had a relation with some sort of speakeasy may have some ties of course with the mob. Being an owner or hosting them or hiding them out or having just a plain old good time with some cocktails."

Bustillos demonstrates a classic speakeasy drink "Pisco Punch" at The Mob Museum.

"It established the anatomy of a punch, being a syrup-base acid, syrup, some sort of bitters and water."

Which doesn't sound very elaborate for a mobster classic.

"Some of the best cocktails are easy, and they stand the test of time," laughs Bustillos.

Don't forget the umbrella

It's the type of drink you might order today at Frankie's Tiki Lounge on West Charleston. The umbrella cocktail became a goodfella go-to.

"Especially in Miami in the 1960s, when the mob were really active in Miami," says Deitche. "You had mobsters from around the country, including Las Vegas, who would go to Miami. Tiki lounges and those tiki-themed bars were very popular."

To be clear, no one is suggesting that mobsters hang out at Frankie's Tiki Lounge. But there have been Las Vegas joints that had a reputation for popular with people who were connected.

"The Jubilation was a famous nightclub; it was owned by Paul Anka," remembers Deitche. "It was also a big hangout for a lot of the wise guys at that time, including Tony Spilotro."

“Cocktail Noir” is full of wise guy-related recipes and is available in The Mob Museum gift shop and online. These days, gambling and drinking are closely regulated here and elsewhere, though we keep an eye out for exceptions.

Nicky Scarfo is currently in prison for a murder conviction unrelated to the case Goodman defended him on.

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