The once-thriving silver-mining community of Aspen had already endured several decades of economic hardship by the time Prohibition took effect in January 1920.
So when the popular bar at the Hotel Jerome was converted into an alcohol-free soda fountain, it’s no surprise that Aspenites rebelled – by dumping some liquor into their milkshakes.
“Locals in the know found a way around the liquor laws,” said Dana Cooper, director of sales and marketing for Hotel Jerome, Auberge Resorts Collection. ”When they ordered milkshakes, they asked for ’crud,’ the addition of four shots of bourbon.”
As it turns out, this simple-but-heavy-handed amendment became wildly popular among patrons of the Jerome Bar, or J-Bar for short.
You can still order an Aspen Crud today when you visit the Hotel Jerome, the 131-year-old Aspen icon that’s seen it all: Aspen’s rise to become the largest producer of silver in the country in 1891; the quiet years that followed the Silver Panic of 1893; the Great Depression of the early 1930s; Aspen’s rebirth as a prosperous cultural and artistic hub in the 1940s and 50s; and, finally, its evolution into a luxury ski destination.
The hotel has changed hands and undergone renovations over the years (today, it’s one of 19 hotels and resorts within the California-based Auberge Resorts Collection), but the Aspen Crud – made with Buffalo Trace, vanilla ice cream and milk – has remained a steady, constant presence.
“It’s not like we’re the only people who have ever thought of spiking a milkshake, but it has been a staple of our community now for close to 100 years,” said Nina Gabianelli, vice president of education and programming at the Aspen Historical Society. ”It’s historically been enjoyed by different generations of people here in Aspen, and the fun part is you can still get one.”
No one knows exactly when the first patron ordered an Aspen Crud, or which bartender was willing to serve it, Gabianelli said. But historians do know that many Aspenites did not stop drinking during Prohibition.
At the time, Aspen was a self-sustaining, isolated community, mostly cut off from the rest of the world after railroads went bankrupt.
Trains still came through the broader Roaring Fork Valley, often carrying grapes that the region’s Italian farmers surreptitiously turned into wine. The town’s druggist was popular for his various healing “elixirs,” according to Gabianelli.
Built by Macy’s co-owner and businessman Jerome Wheeler, Hotel Jerome opened in 1889 during Aspen’s silver-mining heyday with little luxuries like indoor plumbing, an elevator and full electric lighting. By the early 1890s, Aspen had become the third-largest city in Colorado, with a population of around 12,000 people.
But much of the city’s prosperity came crashing down after 1893, when Congress repealed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act and stopped buying silver to back the U.S. dollar. Sheep and cattle ranching become the region’s main economic drivers, and Aspen’s population fell to fewer than 1,000 people. The once-luxurious Hotel Jerome became a cheap boarding house.
“During the quiet years, there was really nothing else to do (but drink),” Gabianelli said. “You’re talking about a community that really struggled to survive.”
Though Prohibition had been repealed many years earlier in 1933, the skiing and mountaineering soldiers of the famed 10th Mountain Division continued to enjoy the Aspen Crud — four shots of bourbon and all — in the early 1940s.
“They were on the edge, they were adventurous, they were risk-taking fun-seekers, much like the people who are drawn to Aspen today,” said Gabianelli.
Those same soldiers returned from World War II and helped launch the ski industry as we know it today, founding dozens of ski areas across the country. In the mid-1940s, Chicago power couple Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke arrived in Aspen and began developing a ski area, working alongside 10th Mountain Division alum and Austrian-born ski racer Friedl Pfeifer. (You’ll find a statue and plaque honoring Pfeifer at the base of Aspen Mountain.)
The Paepckes helped update Hotel Jerome, too, inviting famed Bauhaus architect Herbert Bayer to Aspen to help.
As word spread about Aspen’s great skiing and fresh mountain air, the Jerome welcomed a parade of Hollywood stars, artists and writers — among them John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Lana Turner and Hedy Lamarr, according to the hotel. A corner of the J-Bar became writer Hunter S. Thompson’s campaign headquarters in 1970 when he ran, unsuccessfully, for Pitkin County sheriff.
Hotel Jerome has had its ups and downs since then, but was returned to its former glory with a massive renovation in 1985. The hotel got another facelift in 2012, but has retained much of its historical character and charm.
Today, history is embedded throughout the Hotel Jerome. The hotel’s decor reflects all aspects of Aspen’s trajectory, starting with the Ute tribes who first called this valley home. Arriving guests can sip from apothecary-style flasks and take a guided hotel tour with the Aspen Historical Society. In fact, the society ends many of its popular walking tours in the hotel’s lobby because of the Jerome’s historical significance, Gabianelli said.
For her part, Gabianelli has found herself reflecting recently on the parallels between modern-day Aspen and the Aspen of the early 1920s. We have the 1918 influenza pandemic and Prohibition to thank for the time-honored Aspen Crud — what irreverent innovations will arise from the coronavirus pandemic?
“It’s sure interesting to think about how our community might rebel from all this isolating and not partying and being restricted through this COVID-19 outbreak in a similar fashion to the 1920s,” she said. “That rebellious, ‘We’re going to do what we want, bathtub gin’ era of the 1920s could be reflected in the 2020s. More is yet to come.”
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