The Wet, the Dry, and the Ugly

Prohibition is alive and the crush of bad booze out there.


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How, though, to explain that I boarded the bus at Kent State University with a two-liter bottle filled with Seagram’s 7 whiskey and 7-Up?  My brothers didn’t drink the stuff. I could have sourced some other intoxicant, say beer or vodka, or better yet, a nice bottle of Bourbon.

My answer is simple: Prohibition.

Like Temperance, the name of the social movement that preceded it, Prohibition has an archaic ring to it. The notion that America willingly outlawed the making and selling of alcoholic beverages in the name of the greater good strikes the modern mind as totalitarian and absurd. Why not mandate the wearing of chastity belts and hair-shirts for the unmarried while we’re at it?

But nearly 90 years ago, on January 16, 1920, America officially went dry. How this came to be is a story that often has been told, most recently by Daniel Okrent in Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.

Agitation had been building for decades. Maine went dry in 1851, though it rethought that decision not long afterward. A broad coalition favored banning booze — women, Christians, Nativists, racists, progressives, capitalists, socialists, and health-nuts. With few exceptions, these reformers all believed that drinking caused people to behave in untoward ways. Thus, these reformers held, respectively, that alcohol made men, irresponsible; mankind, impious; immigrants, uppity; Blacks, violent; humankind, retrograde; workers, lazy; employees, imprisoned in false consciousness; and human bodies, sick.

What the reformers failed to recognize is that moralizing does not make things so. Drinking did decline during Prohibition, but not greatly. Demand for drink remained, so illicit producers and suppliers rose to meet it. The impossibility of stopping it was put succinctly by the otherwise hapless Roy Haynes, head of the Prohibition Bureau: “You cannot keep liquor from dripping through a dotted line.” Whiskey poured over the 3,987 mile border between the U.S. and Canada.

Much of the bootleg Canadian whiskey was crummy — it was medium or low-grade rye whiskey mixed with pure alcohol and water, or neutral grain spirits with caramel and prune juice dumped in to impart color and sweetness. But desperate American drinkers were in no position to choose, and unscrupulous Canadians made a killing selling them thin, dull whiskey.

One of the great bases for whiskey smuggling was Windsor, located one mile across the river from Detroit. Sam Bronfman moved enormous amounts of whiskey through there, supplying the Great Lakes states and beyond. Sam Bronfman, of course, was the founder of the Seagram Company Limited.

Though Prohibition existed for only 13 years (1920 to 1933), its deleterious effects linger still. We see it when we try to order a bottle of wine online only to find that it cannot be shipped to our home state. (The 21st Amendment, which repealed Prohibition, permits states to erect barriers to the booze trade.)  We see it when we visit a distillery and find that we cannot buy hooch directly from the distiller. (Instead, under the three-tier system, the distiller must sell it to a distributor, who must sell it to a retailer, from whom you can purchase it.)

A less-discussed legacy of Prohibition is its dumbing down of the American palate. The early 20th century was a boom time for the American drinks industry. Many states had vineyards. Distilleries were making more and better liquor than ever before. Breweries produced beers for local markets everywhere. With huge numbers of diverse, newly arrived immigrants came new traditions of drink. So it was that in many cities the sufferer of digestive discomfort could visit the local apothecary and walk out with a bottle of the bitter Italian digestif Fernet-Branca.

Prohibition wrecked all of that, severely damaging American’s collective knowledge and experience of drinking. Dostoevski observed, “Man is horrible; he can get used to anything.” That’s true. When the legal sources for good drink disappeared, we made do with what was available — lousy Canadian whiskey, bathtub gin, and watery beer and wine. And soda. Prohibition was a gift to the “soft drink” industry, which positioned itself as the healthful, upright alternative to the bad “hard drink” sellers.

Only the biggest beverage producers survived Prohibition, and when they re-opened they recognized the new norm. Americans had grown accustomed to lightly flavored alcoholic beverages, and so that is what was supplied. The Depression and subsequent second world war only gave the nation’s drink-makers further cause to skimp on grape and grain in production. (Some years ago, I had the chance to taste a bottle of Wilson’s Blended Whiskey from the 1940s. It tasted like watery Canadian Club.)  By 1950, the die was cast; Smirnoff was promoting its vodka as flavorless and orderless, and Americans were buying it like crazy.

I concocted a two-liter 7-and-7 because that was a drink my father drank. He bought lousy Canadian whiskey because he grew up in Ohio in the years after Prohibition, and Canadian was the whiskey that folks drank.

I was not the only Prohibition taste-victim on that bus. Most of the others drank watery, big-name beers from cans — Busch, Miller Lite. A few folks drank bastardized wine products, like treacly wine coolers and Boone’s Farm fruit-flavored wines. Despite money and access to better alcohols, we had all chosen dreck.

Which is sad, but not surprising. We did not know any better. We all had had grown up surrounded by bad taste in alcohol. Stripped of our beverage heritage, we had grown up within the limpid taste template left by Prohibition. We had no clue that Inglenook once had been a producer of great wines, and not merely a purveyor of jug Chablis. We left liqueurs in the back of the liquor cabinet because we couldn’t fathom what their point might be. And we chugged cheap beers because it was impossible to believe that any beer could actually taste good.

Things have greatly improved that miserable bus ride 20 years ago. Slowly but surely, Americans have begun to adopt the attitude of drink less but drink better — it’s the Slo-Booze Movement. They are a minority, but their numbers are growing. Now when I visit Ohio I am delighted to find grocery stores selling microbrews, Belgian beers, and a wide range of good spirits and wines. The state now sports some small wineries, breweries, and even a micro distillery. The same things are happening nationwide, so it’s safe to say we are headed in the right direction.

But the symptoms of Prohibition remain very much with us. Just visit your nearest bar, and dollar to doughnuts I’ll bet they stock Seagram’s 7. • 3 December 2010