Episode 073 - Unpacking Prohibition
What’s shakin, cocktail fans?
Welcome back to another episode of The Modern Bar Cart Podcast!
This time around, we had the pleasure of sitting down with author and historian Garrett Peck to discuss the causes, proximal effects, and long-term ramifications of Prohibition, AKA The Volstead Act, which is a piece of legislation that still affects the way we make, consume, and talk about spirits and cocktails in the United States.
Some of the topics that we cover in this conversation include:
How Garrett evolved from a casual weekend tour guide and cocktail enthusiast to a successful historical author.
The events and forces that paved the way for prohibition, including the temperance movement, World War I, and many strains of racial and economic strife in America.
How the Volstead Act worked, and why it was sort of a “bait and switch” for the American people - especially those who enjoyed a good stiff drink.
The ins and outs of everyday life during Prohibition, including bootlegging, rum running, bathtub gin, and speakeasy design.
The fascinating story of the Man in the Green Hat
Why Prohibition still affects the laws and sentiments concerning spirits & cocktails in the U.S. all these years after its momentous repeal.
And much, much more.
Garrett is the author of a number of historical books, including Prohibition in Washington, D.C., The Prohibition Hangover, Capital Beer, and six other history-related texts. His latest project, The Great War in America, will be realeased on December 4, 2018. You can learn more about his books and his ongoing historical tours by visiting GarrettPeck.com, and you can get in touch by filling out the contact form on his site.
Featured Cocktail: The Scofflaw
This week’s featured cocktail is the Scofflaw cocktail, which is a prohibition-era classic invented at Harry’s Bar in Paris in the 1920s.
To make this drink, you’ll need the following ingredients:
1½ oz. rye whiskey
1 oz. dry vermouth
¾ oz. fresh lime juice
½ oz. grenadine
1 dash orange bitters (we like to use Embitterment Orange Bitters)
Combine all these ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice, shake well, and then strain into a stemmed cocktail glass.
Traditionally, garnishes and citrus juices have been a bit fluid with this cocktail. Sometimes lemon, sometimes lime, sometimes an orange twist, sometimes a different garnish. So keep that flexibility in mind as you craft your Scofflaw cocktail.
Prohibition is a period of time in American history spanning from 1919 to 1933 where the sale of alcohol was largely prohibited by a piece of legislation called the Volstead Act (the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution). This period of U.S. history has a lot of moving parts, and we can’t hope to adequately cover it in one podcast episode or one show notes page. That said, below, we cover some of the causes, day-to-day realities, and long-term consequences of Prohibition.
The Forces Responsible for Prohibition
There are a number of groups, causes, and issues responsible for creating an atmosphere where the Volstead Act could pass through Congress and become ratified as an amendment to the Constitution.
The Temperance Movement
Groups like the Anti-Saloon League, the American Temperance Society, and the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement were extremely outspoken and well-organized in their efforts to create a society where family values were protected from the scourge of alcohol. Wayne Wheeler, who was one of the most crucial figures in the passage of the Volstead Act, was a member of the Anti-Saloon League.
The War Effort
Directly leading up to Prohibition, the United States was involved in World War I, fighting in the trenches in Europe against the Kaiser’s army. At that time, patriotism was very high, as was racism toward German Americans (and other racial and religious groups). It was argued by some that the United States needed to save its grain for the war effort, rather than using it to brew beer or distill spirits. Even though the war was over by the time the Volstead Act was passed, but nonetheless, this patriotic logic was instrumental in gaining support for the idea early on.
In cities where many immigrants lived, worked, and became U.S. citizens in the early 20th century, saloons were important gathering places. Politicians used them to buy votes with alcohol, and so both saloons and immigrants became associated with graft and corruption. When Prohibition took effect, much of the enforcement was targeted at these working poor, while well-connected wealthy Americans were mostly able to continue drinking unharassed.
Life During Prohibition
Overnight, American life was changed when the Volstead Act took place. And even though Prohibition addressed the supply side of drinking and alcohol transactions in the United States, it did nothing to investigate or control the demand. As a result, people very quickly set to work finding ways to continue drinking despite the new law.
Bootleggers were those people who would purchase spirits in bulk from either foreign sources or illegal domestic distilling operations.
One important bootlegger in the District of Columbia was George Cassiday (AKA “The Man in the Green Hat”). He was a boutique bootlegger who furnished liquor to Congress for many years during Prohibition. Because he knew all the details about politicians and their illegal drinking, Cassiday teamed up with the Washington Post leading up to the 1933 mid-term elections, penning a number of front-page exposees that unveiled the rampant hipocrisy in Congress.
In 2011, John Uselton and Michael Lowe of New Columbia Distilling created their flagship product, Green Hat Gin, named in honor of Cassiday. Garrett Peck’s book, Prohibition in Washington, D.C., gave Uselton and Lowe the idea for this, and they received the blessing of Cassiday’s son Fred.
These are places where people could go to drink in a bar-like atmosphere, and some even offered carry-out sales of liquor. Some were located in people’s homes, and others operated using actual businesses as fronts.
During the cocktail renaissance, many “speakeasy-style” bars opened up, using the cultural currency of the speakeasy to attract customers to craft cocktails. But as cocktail culture evolved, this style of bar became somewhat overplayed, leading some people to call these venues “Speak-cheeseys.”
Hangover Effects of Prohibition
When Prohibition ended, there was a great deal of distrust regarding distilled spirits. It took generations for this cultural distrust to leech out of our national sentiment. Some of the legislative and economic realities that came about in the aftermath of prohibition and that still affect us to this day include:
Blue Laws - These laws vary from state to state, but many of them ban things the sale of alcohol on Sundays, the sale of liquor in the same stores that sell beer and wine, and the transportation of alcohol across state lines.
Anti-Competitive Laws - Lobbying efforts by groups like liquor distributors and the restaurant lobby in various states has led to restrictions on where spirits can be sold and consumed. For example, in Virginia, only a certain (very small) amount of spirits can be sold at a distillery tasting room for on-premise consumption, which prevents them from selling full-sized cocktails.
Control States - In many states (like Pennsylvania, Virginia, and New Hampshire), liquor sales are controlled by the a government agency. This has many effects on both consumers and alcohol distributors and generally limits the availability of certain spirits by placing a great deal of bureaucracy between the maker and the consumer.
The Manhattan is my go-to. I like using rye whiskey and Dolin sweet vermouth. I also love the Scofflaw cocktail.
Cocktail with Anyone, Past or Present
H.L. Mencken, the Bard of Baltimore. He referred to Prohibition as: “THE THIRTEEN AWFUL YEARS.” We would probably go over to Hoboken and hop on one of the ships coming in from Europe and grab a drink on one of those oceanliners.
Advice on Learning About Prohibition
There are a lot of great books and films to check out, including: