Repeal Day! (Eighty Years of "Now What?")

The Noble Experiment is over!
The Noble Experiment is over!

A version of this article was originally published on December 5th, 2013. 

My Grandma Nina remembered December 5th, 1933 like it was a loved one’s birthday. By then a young doctor, one of only a handful of women to graduate from her class at New York University Medical School, she remembered thinking, “It’s going to be harder to buy good brandy now that it’s legal.”

Nina Lincoln Rayevsky was the perfect age for The Prohibition, the nationwide ban on alcohol known as the Volstead Act, named for Andrew Volstead, the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee who catalyzed government efforts to define the terms of the Eighteenth Amendment banning the sale, production and transport of “intoxicating liquors.” When it went into effect on January 17, 1920, she was just shy of her 14th birthday. The law was designed almost precisely for people like her, to quash habitual imbibing in innocents at the root before they’re old enough to form bad habits, as well as stop those who already had them from keeping them up. However, by the time it was in full swing, in the “Roaring Twenties” in New York City, our apple-cheeked country lass was making bathtub gin in the NYU pathology lab with her classmates. She often frequented the speakeasy in the Vanderbilt hotel, which was hidden to the side of the grand staircase. Apparently a few of her exits were less than graceful on those stairs, and she was thankful for the relaxing effect of the drinks, and the additional padding her big fur coat provided. The “Noble Experiment,” as it was also called, was obviously a total bust. For, of course, there is the unwavering facet of human nature that the more you tell people what they can’t do, the more they are compelled to seek out creative ways to do it anyway. As well as do more of it than necessary.

Police seizing illegal barrels of whiskey, courtesy Boston Public Library
Police seizing illegal barrels of whiskey, courtesy Boston Public Library

This Thursday marks the 80th anniversary of the end of Prohibition, known as Repeal Day, with the ratification of the 21st Amendment. By the time it was enacted, organized crime was at an all time high and people were spending more on unregulated alcohol than they ever did on legal products, creating a $3 billion illegal industry, not to mention the necessity for alcoholic counseling (Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in 1935.) What remained of the legal alcohol landscape was only scorched terrain. Though a miniscule fraction of wineries were able to continue production throughout the Prohibition thanks to a loophole that allowed the sale and consumption of sacramental wines and various types of booze for “medicinal purposes,” the majority of

vineyards, breweries and distilleries were wiped out. Rye whiskey, once the most popular spirit in the country, was now the dodo bird of American spirits, all but extinct. Only roughly half of the breweries that were shut down were able to open again. Vineyards had either gone to rot or were dug up and repurposed for other agriculture. The only positive thing to come out of this dark time was the social acceptance of women as drinkers, and anyone who made booze and also frequented the speakeasies soon realized they had a new target demographic.

It took nearly forty years for the wine industry to bounce back, and this time, winemakers were determined to get it right. Thanks to the efforts of oenology researchers at UC Davis, who recognized that “quality in the bottle is the direct result of quality in the vineyard,” grapes across the land were replanted with a purposeful strategy, taking into account the effects of temperature and microclimates on the appropriate fruit for a balanced wine.

The most devastating toll was on beer and spirits. Many US counties decided to stay “dry” following Repeal, and grain supplies were soon subject to heavy rationing during World War II. By the time that was over, America was used to the corporate beers which dominated the industry, and only a handful of brands were available. Spirits made from grain also suffered the same fate. Obtaining legal licenses to produce proved extremely difficult, even once supplies became plentiful again after the war, thanks to very strict laws that vary by state, some of which only allowed craft distilling to take place within the past decade, some only in the past couple of years (New Jersey, I’m looking at you)! Though it was legal to drink, the doctrines making it possible to do so seemed designed to specifically frustrate would-be brewers and distillers into finding another vocation.

Nina Rayevsky Lief in the 1940s, once a bonafide flapper!
Nina Rayevsky Lief in the 1940s, once a bonafide flapper!

Another seemingly calamitous effect on the spirits trade was that Americans had mostly been drinking imported products smuggled across borders (that “good brandy” Grandma Nina referred to? Napoleon Cognac!) or in their travels to places where drinking was legal, especially blended Scotch and Canadian rye. At home, they also drank vast amounts of gin, since the botanicals could do a fair job masking the poor quality of the homemade hooch in which it was infused and provide enough flavor to satisfy their thirsty palates. When legal stills fired up once more, there was an understandable concern that domestic “straight whiskey” would never become popular again.

Luckily, as we know, it did, as well as rye, which has seen a massive domestic growth in the past decade with the resurgence of Pre-Prohibition cocktails, which call for it as the base spirit. However, this has taken the majority of the past 80 years to revive. For a while, gin took a back seat to vodka, popularized in the 1960s through the Cold War, but now gin is also back in mode. Scanning the shelves of a good liquor store or bar in present day, with so many Made in the US of A choices available in every category, it’s hard to imagine a time when they couldn’t exist at all. Although now, instead of 24-7 speakeasies, most bars in the country are required to close before the first light of morning. There are still several states in which alcohol can only be sold in state-run stores, and interstate shipping is prohibited. It was easier to get a drink when it was illegal!

Grandma Nina died in August of 2000 at the age of 93. I had the sad task of sorting through her belongings in her Manhattan apartment. Among them was a box hidden in the upper reaches of the hall closet that contained errant checkers, some matchbooks to local restaurants, a few hairpins, recent family postcards and a set of keys. Hoping the keys would unlock some sort of hidden treasure like a safety deposit box containing a secret contract or deed, or at least a box of steamy love letters, it turned out they were merely keys to the cabinets of her bedside tables. What was inside them? Several years’ worth of vodka, gin, Scotch and yes, Cognac - hoarded, locked away from view, beside where she slept, so they would never run out, and no one would take them away from her.

It seems old habits do indeed die hard.