Raising a Glass in Remembrance of Prohibition

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Raising a Glass in Remembrance of Prohibition

December 5, 2023, marks the 90th anniversary of the repeal of the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution. This amendment, which went into effect on January 17, 1920, prohibited the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcoholic beverages and their import into or export from the United States and all its territories. 

Documentaries such as Ken Burns’ Prohibition and films like The Untouchables, Scarface, and Once Upon a Time in America document the illicit nature of this alcohol-fueled era as exemplified by a cast of characters including moonshiners, rumrunners, bootleggers gangsters, flappers and, of course, Prohibition agents. But what did this era in U.S. American history actually look like for those who lived it?

Consuming Prohibition-Era Alcohol 

Before the stock market collapse of 1929, those with sufficient funds could pay for quality hooch via a gentleman bootlegger like Seattle’s Roy Olmstead, who only purchased top-shelf liquor for his elite list of clients. Also, one could consume any liquor that was purchased before Prohibition went into effect. Hence, private social clubs and individuals of means amassed a collection of fine wines and liquors that would rival any well-stocked bar. 

Unless one had access to these aforementioned soirees, drinking during Prohibition became a hit-or-miss proposition. As Eric Burns noted in his work Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol, poisoned booze was the great, unsung tragedy of Prohibition. 

People today know about bootleggers and speakeasies; they are familiar with the names Capone and Kennedy, and they have a general impression of casual lawbreaking and wild times kindled by spirits that were not supposed to be so readily available. But they do not know about Yack Yack Bourbon, Jackass Brandy and Squirrel Whiskey. They do not know about cooking alcohol squeezed through a rag and mothballs dropped into a steaming mug of gasoline. And they do not know about Jamaica gin and the men who drank it in doses that were so much more than minute, thereby getting rid of their thirsts for a few minutes as they turned into cripples for the rest of their lives.

In The Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, Daniel Okrenet illuminates how requesting a drink made with a particular brand of liquor became a habit during Prohibition as a means of both protecting oneself from alcohol of questionable origin as well as expressing one’s level of taste. As he keenly observes, “Decades later, many of the liquor industry’s best-known brand names owed their prominence to the ubiquity of Prohibition-era rotgut. But knowing one’s brand did not ensure one was drinking said brand. In too many places, if you ordered Brand X, you got Brand X; if you ordered Dewar’s or Gordon’s, you paid twice as much and got Brand X.”

During Prohibition, cocktails were invented to mask the vile flavors of these homemade spirits, with bathtub gin emerging as a particularly popular illicit spirit. Over time, this term became used to define not just gin made in an actual bathtub but any poorly made spirit. Another common and occasionally equally lethal DIY spirit was moonshine (a.k.a. white lightnin’, rotgut, white dog or corn liquor), so named as it was made and distributed under the cover of darkness to avoid detection by law enforcement. Luckily, versions of moonshine available today from licensed commercial distilleries are made in accordance with federal regulations to ensure drinkers’ safety.

Legal Consumption of Alcohol During Prohibition

The National Prohibition Act (nicknamed the Volstead Act after Rep  Andrew J. Volstead (R-MN) contained select exemptions that permitted people to consume liquor legally. For example, liquor could be used for sacramental and religious purposes, though no statistics exist regarding how many Americans suddenly “got religion” during Prohibition. 

Also, individuals were also permitted to make personal quantities wine and beer at home. A 1920s-era homemaker could walk into most grocery stores in the United States and purchase brick-sized blocks called “Vine-Glo.” These blocks consisted of compressed raisins bound together with condensed grape juice with a container of dried yeast attached to the block. The following text was placed on the wrapping:

WARNING: Do not dissolve this fruit brick in warm water and then add the contents of the yeast packet, as this will result in fermentation and the creation of alcohol, the production of which is illegal. 

Given home winemaking was legal, the designation of this act as “illegal” appears to be more of a marketing ploy to entice consumers than an actual legal warning. 

 In a similar vein, homemakers could buy the malt syrup and yeast necessary for making beer. Some could also obtain liquor with a medical prescription, though in the first five years of Prohibition, only 26 states allowed the sale of medicinal liquor. These prescriptions were issued to treat a wide range of ailments including anxiety, asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes, shock, cancer, certain kinds of poisoning, insomnia and snakebites. As expected, doctors stopped this practice shortly after Prohibition was repealed. 

With the passage of the 21st Amendment ending national Prohibition, the federal government permitted each state to develop their own system for providing safe alcohol to consumers, while also collecting tax revenue. This system not only informs where, when, and what consumers can drink but also explains why these laws differ from state-to-state. 

These days, Prohibition-era cocktails such as the Gin Rickey, French 75 and Tom Collins can be consumed without fear of poisoning or legal consequences. But the presence of these beverages in our bars today serves as an indication of how deeply this era in American history shaped our present-day habits.

Becky Garrison is an author and journalist based in Greater Portland, Oregon, and author of the forthcoming book Distilled in Washington: A History (The History Press, March 18, 2024).

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