History Miscellaneous

Drinking during Prohibition

Yesterday (December 5) was the 78th anniversary of the end of Prohibition, the thirteen-year Dark Age in which it was illegal to produce or sell alcoholic beverages in the United States. (Interestingly enough, it was not illegal to consume alcohol.)

December 5th is celebrated in many of the nation's bars as Repeal Day, one of those rare occasions when drinkers and constitutionalists both have something to salute. (The 18th and 21st amendments, which respectively began and ended Prohibition, were a triumph of the spirit of popular, progressive government in action. Sure, it led to misery, violence and the rise of organized crime — but nobody ever said democracy ain't messy.)

Prohibition is often viewed as something of a romantic time in drinking culture, despite the hardships that its official illegality created. Speakeasies were roaring, flappers were flapping, bootleggers (like Joe Kennedy) were making fortunes, and drinking (ironically) became a popular public pastime.

But what did people actually drink during Prohibition? There's where the romanticism quickly fades. As bartender and author Gary Regan explains, it was a depressing time for those who enjoyed a good drink.

If you desire a real speakeasy tipple, you can have either a glass of Champagne or a whiskey-and-ginger-ale highball. That’s about it. All that talk of the fabulous cocktails made in the midst of Prohibition in order to mask the flavors of badly made alcohol is wrong. When your drinking experience is an illegal one, you just want to get down to drinking.

That whiskey they were drinking wasn't the good stuff either. It was poor quality Canadian rye smuggled over the border. In certain parts of the country (Florida, for example) where rum-running was feasible, it was possible to get some lousy Caribbean rum. And in the big Eastern cities English gin was occasionally available. But there were no fancy cocktails to be had. Even a decent Martini was impossible. As a a wag once said, "Nobody bootlegs vermouth."

So the next time you enjoy a well-mixed cocktail or a bottle of fine spirits, remind yourself: where drinking is concerned, we've never had it so good.