Prohibition Ended 85 Years Ago. Get Over It, Already.
Why do we continue to glamorize one of the most oppressive, job-destroying and dangerous periods in America’s history?
A few years ago I wrote a piece for this publication (you can read it here) about the state of the U.S. liquor industry 80 years after Prohibition ended. Today, December 5th, 2018, marks 85 years since the 21st Amendment passed, making it legal to drink again. Each year since I wrote that piece I have been content to just re-post it as an annual Repeal Day celebration of sorts, but some things have been bothering me of late. They bother me because in the five years since I wrote it, much of the world has changed, but one thing hasn’t: people in America still think it’s cool to party like it’s 1929.
Except it isn’t. While that era looks glamorous from a distance, let’s say there were some issues.
There’s nothing stately about the thousands of jobs lost when the country’s 5th largest industry was destroyed.
The job market associated with producing alcohol—distilleries, breweries, wineries, cooperages, farming industries, saloons, etc.—took a huge hit. So did the need for workers in regular restaurants, textiles, theater and trucking industries. In many places outside the big cities, the 1920s were not roaring; they weren’t even squeaking.
There’s nothing sexy about drinking toxic substances as substitution for the real thing.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, even though it was one of my favorite bars of all time, the Jakewalk is the dumbest name ever for an establishment. It romanticizes a horrific, irreversible neurological condition, “Jake leg”, brought on by consuming Jamaica ginger extract, a.k.a. “Jake”, that had been modified with tri-o-tolyl phosphate (TOCP) to get past the law. According to some sources, it has been estimated between 30,00 to 50,000 people—most of them immigrants or otherwise on the fringes of society—were poisoned by Jake, losing the use of their hands and feet. Those who could walk, did so all wiggly because they couldn’t control their toes.
There’s nothing romantic about the word “Prohibition”
Jakewalk is only one example of the names bar operators have used for their modern drinking establishments as a throwback to the so-called Noble Experiment (including that phrase). Countless bars even call themselves “Prohibition” or “18th Amendment” or some variation. Why in the name of all that is rye whiskey would you call your bar, where, presumably, you’d like to turn a profit, after a period OUTLAWING THE CONSUMPTION OF THE VERY THING YOU ARE SELLING??????
While we’re at it, please stop naming liquor brands after violent gangsters.
There’s nothing charming about being gunned down in a mob shootout.
According to the Chicago Crime Commision (CCC), 729 people were killed gangland style between 1919 and 1933.
This is in Cook County, IL alone.
There’s nothing fun about visiting a bar that’s hard work to get into
I can think of few things as uninviting in modern day than figuring out how to enter a new—bar because there is no sign and no marked address of any kind—schlepping up a flight of steep stairs (I don’t care about whose house the banister design is a tribute to, how many days it took to lay down the tile on the stair or how rococo the designer retro wallpaper is) only to bump up against a modern day bouncer asking for I.D. So you can drink legally. Or worse, discovering after all that fuss you can’t even get into the bar in the first place because everyone else knows about it now too, even though no one is supposed to, (but tell that to the hidden bar’s publicist and the hidden bar’s instagram) and there is a three hour waiting list. To drink. Your bar is not a “speakeasy”—it’s a velvet-flocked obstacle course with a very lucky drip tray. As Sother Teague says in this interview, “The only way to go to a speakeasy is if you have a time machine, and if you have a time machine, we need to be friends.”
That unaged whiskey at your liquor store is not moonshine
Moonshine? In an actual store? In a bell jar? On display? That you can consume and show people you own without being arrested? You know why unaged whiskey used to be called “moonshine”, right? It’s because it’s the stuff distilled, in a homemade, makeshift still, (not a Vendome, FFS), preferably under cover of night so the tax people or other authorities don’t know you’re making hooch, and its history goes wayyyyy further back than the era of the Volstead Act. What you have now is unaged (clear, white, silver, platinum, whatever) whiskey people can legally purchase, (they usually do it only once, though), that was born from a boardroom back story about someone’s fictitious relative and their “secret” recipe. (Oh, but the water it’s made with is local!!!)
Not all the cocktail recipes from the 1920s were conceived to mask bad alcohol
People forget that although the sale and consumption of liquor was illegal in the U.S., (insert mandatory mention of alcohol prescriptions and sacramental dispensation here), leaving the country to drink somewhere else wasn’t. Some of the best bartenders living in America left for Paris, Havana, London and other foreign shores so they could continue their trade. Some of the best bartenders already worked in those locales in the first place and created excellent recipes we still drink. Also, some of the best bartenders still living in the U.S. and working at secret bars were mixing drinks using perfectly good spirits smuggled in from other places. The Corpse Reviver series, Mary Pickford, Hanky Panky, White Lady, Monkey Gland, Hemingway Daiquiri—these are just a few examples of famous recipes that were created during Prohibition, and none because they were covering up poor quality spirits, bathtub gin, or the like. Incidentally, saying that all gin in the 1920s was made in a bathtub is akin to saying someone doesn’t speak English with an accent because they’re American.
Now who wants a cocktail?
What we should be celebrating on December 5th any year, or any day of any year, is that the ban on alcohol in the United States didn’t last. It makes absolutely no sense to celebrate Prohibition’s wretched existence and all the alcohol law havoc it left in its path. Eighty-five years is a long time. There should be a statute of limitations on fringe dresses and spats (which, incidentally, went out of style by the time of Repeal anyway). Sure, go ahead: drink any kind of drink, drink Jim Beam Repeal Batch or George Remus Repeal Reserve or any other Repeal-focused booze release, take a fake ax to a Carrie Nation piñata that showers mini bottles of booze or something to celebrate December 5th if you want. That sounds kinda fun. That makes sense.
What doesn’t is making liquor hard to drink when you don’t have to.