100 Years Ago Today: Prohibition Starts in the United States

Over the last few years we’ve seen more and more states legalizing the use of recreational drugs like marijuana and pushing towards national legalization… which just goes to show how far we come. Only 100 years ago, the United States was in a much different place. On this date, January 17th, in 1920 the dark period for whiskey aficionados known as Prohibition started in the United States.

Alcohol is directly responsible for allowing civilization as we know it to flourish. Back when cities were still a new idea, plumbing and fresh water weren’t exactly widely available. Making alcoholic drinks such as beer and whiskey was a way to sterilize the water people were drinking and drastically improved the lifespan of city-dwelling humans. Without alcohol, we wouldn’t be here.

Fast forward a few thousand years and people started becoming concerned that we were taking this love of alcohol a little too far. In 18th century England, a “gin craze” was identified as the source of much malicious activity and led to calls for alcohol sales to be banned. That laid the ground work for the later Massachusetts Society for the Suppression of Intemperance (MSSI) in 1813, who were similarly concerned with the negative impact of alcohol consumption on society.

As the cities grew larger and more violent within the United States, a similarly growing portion of the population blamed alcohol consumption for that violence. If only we could rid ourselves of this alcohol, their logic went, we would get rid of that violence! Others, such as the Mormon Church, saw it as an outright sin and in the mid-1800s they outlawed the consumption of alcohol outright.

This movement gained support over many decades and in June 1919, following the end of The Great War, culminated in a proposal by Minnesota Republican Congressman Andrew Volstead to regulate and outlaw the production, sale, and consumption of intoxicating beverages within the United States. The so-called Volstead Act passed through both houses of Congress and was sent to President Woodrow Wilson’s desk in October, where it was promptly vetoed.

(Woodrow Wilson. Led the country through World War One, laid the groundwork for the current United Nations, and now… hero to whiskey drinkers everywhere.)

Despite the veto, both houses of Congress voted to override Wilson and the legislation finally went into effect at midnight on January 17th, 1920. According to the legislation, only alcohol destined for medicinal and research uses were allowed. The consumption of “intoxicating spirits” was prohibited outright. As for what constitutes an “intoxicating spirit”… well, the government defined it as anything with an alcohol content of 0.5% or greater.

It didn’t take long for people to start rebelling against this new law. In fact, it took less than an hour for the first documented violation: six men robbed $100,000 worth of medicinal alcohol from a freight train in Chicago, Illinois at 12:59 AM.

That robbery was a rather accurate taste of what was to come. Over the next decade, alcohol consumption in the United States actually skyrocketed, and that voracious demand for spirits fueled the rise of organized crime as we know it. The cash flowing into these criminal enterprises lead to government corruption that’s still a staple of Illinois politics to this day, and fueled rivalries between gangs that typically ended in bloodshed. That mass violence would result in the passage of the National Firearms Act in 1934, the first attempt at gun control in the United States and still the strictest regulation on firearms we have in the country.

While the rise of organized crime is probably the most often identified result of the Volstead Act, a similarly bloody episode was unfolding among American distilleries. With very few exceptions, all of the distilleries in the United States closed overnight, shuttering the equipment and sending their storerooms down the drain.

Prohibition lasted long enough that many of the employees of these distilleries had either moved on or passed away by the time prohibition ended, meaning that all of that valuable institutional knowledge had been lost. You’ll see time and again through my reviews that among the older distilleries there’s typically a period during prohibition where the production stopped, and then they needed to buy all new equipment and supplies to start again when it ended. Which means that even if the modern day product bears the same name as the historical brand, there’s no guarantee that you’re getting an accurate representation of what was once in the bottle all those years ago.

When prohibition ended in 1933, the distillers started coming out of hiding and opening up their shops once again — but the damage had already been done. It was like the American whiskey industry was starting over, finding its legs again and starting from scratch. All of that history was lost, never to be found again.

So today, grab a bottle (I’d recommend Old Forester, a company who continued production of “medicinal whiskey” throughout prohibition) and pour a glass in remembrance of those distilleries who closed their doors never to open again and those master distillers whose expertise would be lost forever. And give thanks for the new pioneers who are now opening distilleries and trying new things all across the United States, spreading the gospel of whiskey wherever they go.

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