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By most accounts, prohibition wasn't so dry after all. The years between 1920 and 1933 are usually associated with speakeasies, bootleggers, bathtub gin and gangsters, and for some, those were the highlights of the decade. If you were part of the relatively small percentage of the population who frequented speakeasies, the nightlife was sparkling, and it was in the fun-filled, mobster-run clubs of this era that the twenties roared with a hoarse throat, worn dry by bad liquor.
One of the strangest effects of Prohibition, however, was this: Hard liquor actually became more popular. Why? Simply because it packed more alcohol into a small quantity of liquid than wine or beer and was therefore easier to transport and hide from the authorities. People who had once enjoyed a few beers at the local saloon were now tossing back shots of whiskey and drinking fanciful cocktails made with poor-quality booze. It is estimated that although relatively little wine or beer was poured during Prohibition, consumption of the hard stuff actually increased by more than 15 percent per person. It then defined by about 25 percent after Repeal.
Felix. graf van Luckner, a visitor to America during Prohibition, painted a marvelous scene of the effects of the experiment in his book Seeteuful erebert America, 1928:
"Prohibition has created a new, universally respected, a well-beloved, and a very profitable occupation, that of the bootlegger who takes care of the importation of the forbidden liquor. Everyone knows this, even the powers of the government. But this profession is beloved because it is essential, and it is respected because its pursuit is clothed with an element of danger and with a sporting risk. Now and then one is caught, that must happen pro forma and then he must do time or, if he is wealthy enough, get someone to do time for him.
Since, as van Luckner noted, the sleazy gin mills had disappeared and much drinking, therefore, occurred in swank nightclubs and the homes of the wealthy, Prohibition's other weird effect was that drinking became more socially acceptable than it had been prior to 1920. Speakeasies weren't the only places you could buy booze during Prohibition. In his book The Great Illusion. Herbert Asbury quotes a 1929 telegram that listed over 30 people and places that supplied liquor in Manhattan. The locations included delicatessens, shoe-shine parlors, barbershops, delivery agencies, paint stores, taxi drivers, moving-van companies and, of course, newspapermen's associations. Many stories might never have met their deadlines if the hard-drinking journalists of yesteryear weren't able to knock back a shot or two. And although the Governor of New York's office wasn't mentioned in the telegram, it is said that even during the dry years, Franklin D. Roosevelt was wont to serve cocktails from his desk every afternoon at four.
The Noble Experiment also helped the drug industry of the time inasmuch as some city folk who didn't want to risk flouting the law simply went down to their local teahouse (a euphemism of the time) and smoked marijuana, which remained legal until 1937. Bur these were also the days when many people were stricken with a variety of weird and wonderful maladies that needed regular treatment with frequent tots of decent, aged "medicinal" whiskey.
Six distilleries were given permits to sell medicinal whiskey during Prohibition-A. Ph. Stitzel, Glenmore, Schenley, Brown-Forman, National Distillers and Frankfort Distilleries-and these companies were allowed to store whiskey and sell it to licensed druggists, who in turn could mete it out to customers who had a doctor's prescription. In his book Nothing Better In The Market, John Ed Pearce says that only 10 such medicinal whiskey permits were applied for, and although the reasons for such a small number aren't quite clear, it was possible that most people in the industry simply thought the permits not worth the bother. Further amendments to the law made it possible to distill whiskey (during "distilling holidays") that would be used for medicinal purposes.
This legitimate whiskey was prized for its high quality, since unless people could get smuggled Scotch, most of the other available whiskeys were roughly made and seldom aged by the moonshiners who produced them.
Horrible stories about people going blind after drinking bootleg liquor are true. Some bootleggers took a shortcut and produced highly toxic methyl or wood alcohol instead of ethyl (beverage) alcohol. Methyl alcohol has a direct effect on the optic nerve, and as little as one ounce has been known to cause death. Others-either those not versed in the art of distillation or those too concerned with time and money-would not adhere to the art of the distiller wherein only the center section of the whiskey is deemed suitable for consumption. Instead, they would sell the entire batch of spirits, and the resultant whiskey, although it wouldn't make drinkers blind was a far cry from the pure, bold red liquor that the distillers had fought for at the turn of the century. All sorts of ploys were used to make this rotgut at least look good. Bootleggers colored their white lightning with ingredients such as iodine and tobacco to make it look as though it had been "in the wood" for a few years.
The Volstead Act all but destroyed many of the legitimate whiskey distilleries. Most of them were dismantled, and of the 17 plants operating in Kentucky prior to Prohibition, only seven were making whiskey in 1935. Yes, all sorts of deals were going on throughout this period-distilleries without a "medicine" license were selling their Hocks to those who had a license, others maintained warehouses where those with licenses could store their whiskey under government supervision, and an unofficial cartel sent Owsley Brown of Brown-Forman to Europe to try to sell over 20,000 barrels of bourbon-a mission that was only partially successful. But toward the end of Prohibition, those who were still producing whiskey were busy making plans for Repeal.
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