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Prohibition, Repeal & Beyond
The below information has been republished with permission of the author, David Wondrich. Wondrich is one of the world's foremost authorities on cocktails and their history. A contributing editor at Esquire and at Wine and Spirits, he has also written for numerous other publications on the subject, including the New York Times, Saveur, Real Simple, and Drinks. Author of several books, including most recently Imbibe!, Wondrich holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature, and is a founding member of the Museum of the American Cocktail and a partner in the Beverage Alcohol Resource, the world's first advanced education program in spirits and cocktails. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and daughter. The views and opinions expressed in the following book chapters are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Distilled Spirits Council or its member companies.
Prohibition, Repeal & Beyond
For 13 years, one could not legally manufacture, distribute or possess alcoholic beverages in the United States. No law in our history was more unpopular or more widely ignored, evaded or loopholed and no law in American history was more efficient at promoting the very thing which it was designed to prevent. Not only did it fail to stop drinking, it ensured that alcoholic beverages would cost more, be of poorer quality and cause more violence than ever before.
The Temperance Movement Takes On the Sporting Life
The social control of alcohol was, along with the abolition of slavery, one of the most hotly debated issues in 19th century America. Some favored encouraging men to drink temperately, others encouraging them not to drink at all. When these approaches failed to yield total success, many advocates of temperance redefined the word, changing it from meaning "exerting self-control to master a sometimes-dangerous and socially disruptive habit" to "using the law to prevent people from even having the opportunity to exert their self-control." At first, this was singularly unsuccessful. The towns and then states that went "dry" were anything but. Once one of them prohibited the sale of alcohol, networks of "bootleggers"-essentially, smugglers (the name comes from the act of stuffing flasks of contraband into the high tops of one's boots)-and "speakeasies" (the name is Irish; a "speak-easy" is a place where one had to speak softly so that the police wouldn't know that there was an illegal bar being operated within) sprang up, and the folks who really wanted a drink had no problem getting one. Meanwhile, the government was no longer able to control, regulate or influence (or tax) the trade. Consequently the neighboring states, where the liquor was coming from, often got rich on the extra sales.
The Prohibitionists acknowledged these failures, but came back with the argument that if only the whole country were dry, the corrupting influence of the "wet" states on the dry ones would be eliminated. There'd be nothing to smuggle-no liquor, champagne, port or sherry and not even "light wines and beer" (although some soft-spined Prohibitionists were for a time inclined to make an exception for those)-and nowhere to smuggle it from. Nowhere to smuggle it from, that is, except the whole rest of the world-a small detail that was ignored in the general atmosphere of optimism (among the more naïve of the Prohibitionists) and hardheaded expediency (among the rest).
From this distance, banning the sale, manufacture and importation of a commodity without which a very large part of the world had, since time immemorial, concluded human life could not flourish, seems like a rash and vindictive act. It's safe to say that, to a large degree, it wasn't about the alcohol; it was about the "sporting life"; the rowdy, anti-domestic lifestyle that centered in the saloon. The saloon was the sport's home, church and place of business all rolled into one, and the Prohibitionists wanted it gone-even if it meant a certain amount of heroic self-sacrifice from everybody else. And besides, there was bound to be some sort of safety-hatch in the law, no? In the mid teens, the prolific newspaper humorist Don Marquis, creator of the immortal Archy and Mehitabel, ran a particularly wicked series of columns in which a society girl favors us with her thoughts on the issues of the day (they were collected in 1916 as Hermione and Her Little Circle of Serious Thinkers). In a column entitled "Taking Up the Liquor Problem," Hermione neatly (if viciously) summarizes upper-class thought on the matter:
"The Working Classes would be so much better off without liquor. And we who are the leaders in thought should set them an example. So a number of us have decided to set our faces very sternly against drinking in public. Of course, a cocktail or two and an occasional stinger, is something no one can well avoid taking, if one is dining out or having supper after the theater with one's own particular crowd. But all the members of my own particular little group have entered into a solemn agreement not to take even so much as a cocktail or a glass of wine if any of the working classes happen to be about where they can see us and become corrupted by our example."
Even if you banned saloons and liquor stores, you'd still be able to get a drink at the Club, right? If not, well, with privilege comes responsibility, and that would be a sacrifice you'd just have to make. And besides, you of course can take the stuff or leave it alone, not like those unfortunate, undisciplined saloon-rats. Thus the "Noble Experiment."
In any case, by 1915 almost half of the states were dry. America's entry into the Great War, then raging in Europe, gave the "Drys" more ammunition, as it were, to fight for the suppression of so unproductive a use of the nation's resources as turning them into alcoholic beverages. Finally, folks capitulated. The 18th Amendment, banning the manufacture, sale or importation of all alcoholic beverages, was ratified on January 16, 1919. A year later, the Volstead Act, which created an enforcement structure for the amendment, took effect. 507 distilleries, 1,217 breweries and some 180,000 saloons closed their doors-more or less, as it would turn out.
Prohibition and the Rule of Unintended Consequences
If there's one thing that the long and sordid history of legislated morality proves, it's that to make something that a majority perceives as harmless and fun illegal is not the same thing as to make it go away. If anything, quite the opposite. The dry years were a gross national wallow of Rabelaisian cast. "Do what thou wilt" was the whole of the law: everyone from bank president to ice-man was united in a nationwide fraternity of vice. Often they'd be drawn to the same salt-lick, high and low rubbing elbows at the neighborhood speakeasy, buying their hooch from the same hoodlum, sleeping it off in the same drunk tank. And for the first time women could join the men in their elbow bending. Saloons had kept them out, but speaks couldn't afford to be that choosy. Ironically, Prohibition did kill off the old sporting life, but only by swamping it in a tide of amateurs. All in all, it was a fine mess. By the end of the '20s, Henry Ford, a notorious Dry, was supporting repeal-so that people would cut down on their drinking.
The closing of the cabarets didn't mean the end of nightlife. People still wanted to step out, and new clubs popped up to accommodate them. Some of these nightclubs occupied the old spaces; Rector's, for instance, reopened as the Café de Paris. Only now, to get by, a club owner had to be willing to supply hooch, deal with hoodlums, bribe cops, protect his turf-basically, be a gangster. Solid citizens like Louis Sherry and Jacques Bustanoby were out; in were punks like the "horse-faced racketeer" Larry Fay (46 arrests) and Owney "the Killer" Madden (nine years in Sing Sing: premeditated murder). The booze was generally suspect, the dancers vulgar and the music loud. Jazz fit right in. Like acid rock in the '60s, it became a banner. 'I like jazz' = 'I drink'-and dance, swear, fight, make love without benefit of a license, live-whatever, as long as it ain't Victorian. The "jazzhead" creed was no more consistent or coherent than that of their grandkids forty years later, and it raised the same kind of hackles. A 1922 Ladies' Home Journal piece on jazz dancing trots out all the standard phrases: "unwholesome excitement," "boy-and-girl couples," "dangerous disturbance," "blatant disregard of even the elementary rules of civilization," "statistics of illegitimacy" and so forth.
The stuff that was fueling this binge wasn't very good. In the cheaper joints, it was rotgut distilled in a basement somewhere by folks who had no care for such fine points as taste, quality or even elementary sanitation. In a few of the most expensive places, joints such as New York's 21 Club, you could, for a price, get some of the whiskey, rum and champagne that was being smuggled in from abroad in staggering quantities, and if you were very, very lucky, it would be uncut. If you were a little less lucky, it would be cut responsibly with filtered water and grain alcohol, as New York speakeasy operator Joe "The Markee" Madden explained: "the cutting was done right in the Madden establishment. We would take one gallon of pure grain alcohol (very good stuff) and then a gallon of filtered water to which we would add a gallon and a half of very fine straight rye. This made a swell drink, as I believe my customers will admit." If you weren't lucky, of course, at best you'd get rooked completely and at worst you'd end up in the hospital or even the morgue.
Prohibition, in short, was not a good time for the discriminating drinker, or for the mixologist. The bartender's art was directed towards covering the taste of bad liquor, not enhancing the taste of good. If you wanted a proper cocktail, the best place to get it was abroad-in Havana, say, or London or Paris. Up to this point, the European school of mixology was a mere sapling in the shadow of the mighty American oak. With the Volstead Act, Congress chopped down the oak. Fancy drinking on the American plan was no longer possible in America. Not even the best, most honest speakeasies (and there were a few) could secure all the stuff the dedicated mixologist needed to practice his craft, although some did remarkably well. As for the standard-issue speak…one shudders to think.
Don Marquis neatly sums up the situation when he has another of his characters, Clem Hawley, the "Old Soak," visit Paris with his pal, Al the Bartender. In between "weeskies," Clem finds time to write home. "Al, he says he is learning a lot of new tricks, and I says to him what in the name of hell will you do with them when you learn them, you got nothing to practice them on when you go home, all you got when you go home is boot leg liquor." Al replies, with dignity, "In my soul I am a bartender and a artist even when my boddy has nothing to work on." Someday, says Al, "theyr will come a happy day in the U.S.," at which point he will be prepared.
Others, bartenders-in-their-souls and artists like Al, chose rather to exercise their art in exile than abandon it or practice it surreptitiously and with adulterate materials. Among them was Harry Craddock, a veteran of the famous Hoffman House bar (for many years New York's top watering hole, until the hotel that housed it was torn down in 1915) and the bar at the swank Holland House Hotel on Fifth Avenue. In 1920, he got a job in London at the Savoy Hotel's American Bar, then under the direction of Ada "Coley" Coleman, one of the very few women to make a name as a mixologist until recent years. When she retired four years later, the bar was Harry's. Six years later, he published what he had learned, in the form of the instant classic Savoy Cocktail Book. Not only were the standard American dinks of the pre-Prohibition era there, but it was jammed with drinks that had had never slid across an American bar. Drinks based on strange, foreign aperitifs such as the French Kina Lillet and Quinquina or the South African Caperitif; exotic liquors-Calvados, vodka (practically unknown in the States) and even Canadian whisky, in place of the unavailable rye and bourbon (Canadian whiskies had certainly been marketed in the States before Prohibition, but only one known cocktail recipe from the period actually called for it); oddly-named liqueurs and unusual syrups (it's safe to say not even the Hoffman House would have carried sirop de groseille; it's made of red currants and you still can't get it here). The formulae were simple, streamlined, without the rococo refinements of composition and technique characteristic of the vanished American school. But they were elegant, too, and often imaginative. The Savoy Cocktail Book was more than just a list of the drinks you could get at an expensive London hotel. It was an encyclopedia of the flourishing European school of mixology. It was also an ark for what was left of the American school, written at a time when Americans were marveling at European bars like the old European travelers once had at American ones.
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