Effects of prohibition. The rise of cocktails is still widely drunk

Prohibition is 100 years old, and with it, the rise of cocktails still widely drunk, such as “Cuba Libre” or “Bloody Mary”. In the 1920s, when alcohol was banned, these beverages appeared to hide better the taste of the adulterated alcohol used in their composition.


Police officers pour alcohol into the sewers in 1921, during Prohibition.

One hundred years ago, on January 16, 1920, it suddenly became impossible to obtain alcohol. A year after its ratification, the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution, carried by the Volstead Act, came into force and declared that “the production, sale or transport of alcoholic beverages is prohibited”.

Suppose the only notable exception to this alcohol ban is mass wine. In that case, this ban results from the growing influence of temperance movements initiated by Protestants in the 19th century. The latter campaign for an outright ban on alcohol consumption, to which they bring a large part of the evils that overwhelm society.

The movement, supported by pastors wanting a more moral community and associations of women who see alcohol as one of the reasons for domestic violence, is slowly gaining momentum. Over the years, the various supporters of Prohibition organized themselves under the aegis of the Anti-Saloon League, a lobbying organization that managed to get this famous 18th Amendment passed in 1919.

Members of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union marched in Washington in 1909 to petition for Prohibition.

Members of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union march in Washington in 1909 to present a petition favouring Prohibition. • Credits: Topical Press Agency – Getty
The production and sale of alcohol may be prohibited, but it remains legal to consume it. The floods of alcohol having dried up, however, it becomes impossible to obtain it, and Prohibition thus paves the way for the development of a parallel economy of contraband, as the anthropologist Véronique Nahoum-Grappe recalled in the Can you hear the eco show in November 2017:

This market will mainly benefit the large trafficker companies and above all set the Mafia families on fire

This market will mainly benefit the large trafficker companies and above all set the Mafia families on fire, who will have the monopoly: production, transport and place of consumption. All the folklore that we have in the underground gambling den movies, even the history of jazz, etc., is very much linked to this massive reconfiguration of the whole of society by this clandestine piece of the action.

The mafias, as we know, corrupt politics and feed on the large real estate markets, prostitution and the consumption of prohibited psychotropic drugs. Whether it’s alcohol or others.

It also resulted in a loss of know-how: all the small businesses, the normal distilleries that had a family history, were destroyed. It is estimated, after the 1930s, that the loss of know-how in production was enormous. It took a long time to rebuild it because it is not anything. The production of alcohol is quite delicate and needs to be watched.

The Prohibition in question

This parallel economy will be the glory of the gangsters of the 1920s. The notoriously famous Al Capone will thus build a large part of his empire on the smuggling of alcohol, as Pap Ndiaye, professor of American history at Sciences-Po, recounted in a’Concordance des Temps broadcast, in October 2015:

Al Capone is very clever, since first of all, he takes advantage of Prohibition by investing heavily in the smuggling of alcohol. Chicago is a border city. While crossing Lake Michigan, one can get gulped down. He manages to control the entire chain.

If I may say so, from buying alcohol in Canada to selling it in illegal bars, in the many speakeasies [illegal bars, Editor’s note] of Chicago. With absolutely gigantic profits which are barely eaten away by police actions or even rather spectacular moments. When the mayor wants to bang his fist on the table, he orders his agents, for the press in particular, for a few suitable photographs, slashing the barrels with an axe to give the impression that something is being done. On the whole, the alcohol trade continued without difficulty until 1933.

Destruction of alcohol reserves during Prohibition in 1933

Aware of the impossibility of eliminating alcohol, necessary for specific industries (perfume, ink, etc.), supporters of the Prohibition impose chemical additives to industrial alcohols to make them unfit for consumption. However, smugglers are quick to discover how to counteract the effects of additives, not without seriously impacting the taste of the drink. In 1925, nearly a third of the 150 million gallons of industrial alcohol produced would have been diverted to make contraband alcohol.

“We can not do much for the quality of products in circulation, in the absence of regulations and the absence of sanitary controls”, relates Renaud Colson, a lecturer at the University of Nantes, in Hear. you the eco:

The market is energized by repression

Because the market is energized by repression, the players in this market will tend to swarm, to circulate inferior quality products, possibly by cutting them. And we can indeed assume that people who have more money will obtain better quality products, and those who have less money will receive lower quality products.

Equipment used to make contraband alcohol is seized by authorities • Credits: Buyenlarge – Getty
In 1920, unless you draw on your reserves, it becomes difficult to obtain a whiskey aged in barrels according to the art rules. Another option is, therefore, to create your alcohol and, more particularly, the gin. It is so easy to make that it is given a nickname that will end up qualifying more or less all alcohol produced by amateurs: the “bathtub gin” or “bathtub gin”. To make this spirit, you need to have in your possession an inexpensive bottle of grain alcohol, often vodka and juniper berries, and start the distillation process in your bathtub.

Equipment used to make contraband alcohol is seized by the authorities.

Prohibition, gin is not the first attempt: already trendy at the beginning of the 18th century in London with the working class because of its low price. Its excessive consumption created an epidemic of public cases of intoxication. It was designated under the term of “gin craze”, the madness of the gin, and caused a wave of anger, leading to a series of laws intended to regulate its sale and consumption: the “Gin Act” was thus promulgated in 1751.

From 1920, the creation of contraband alcohol, in turn, became a national sport in the United States: in 1921, the Prohibition Office seized 95,933 undeclared stills necessary for the distillation of alcohol. In 1930, this figure was multiplied by 3.

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Addressing taste: the rise of cocktails
However, illegally created amounts of alcohol taste bitter at best. And how can you continue to drink when the liquid is entirely undrinkable? Not everyone can afford Winston Churchill, who, during a visit to the United States in 1931, had been prescribed, after being hit by a car, a certificate assuring that he was required to consume alcoholic beverages after each meal. What is more, the future Prime Minister of the United Kingdom had access to quality alcohol.

“This certifies that after his accident, Winston Churchill’s recovery requires him to consume alcoholic beverages, especially at mealtimes.”
“This certifies that after his accident, Winston Churchill’s convalescence requires him to consume alcoholic beverages, especially at mealtimes.” • Credits: Order of doctor Otto C. Pickhardt.

Addressing taste: the rise of cocktails

For the others, making alcohol consumable was a question, the taste of which is often difficult to bear when it is not dangerous. Many cases of blindness, brain damage or even death have been reported following poisoning due to contraband alcohol, as Pap Ndiaye recounted in Concordance des Temps:

Wood alcohol is adulterated methanol-based alcohol produced during Prohibition, illegally, of course, and which has catastrophic effects on the health of drinkers. It has been calculated that approximately 10,000 Americans died between 1920 and 1933 due to drinking adulterated alcohol.

The poor had access to inexpensive, adulterated, often hazardous drinking, as opposed to the more affluent classes who, for their part, could pile up reserves of whiskey, beer and other spirits and also obtain good quality alcohol in Canada or Cuba.

Wood alcohol

Prohibition is not at the origin of the creation of cocktails. With several millennia of alcohol consumption behind it, humanity did not wait to see it banned before starting to mix it with other ingredients. But Prohibition nonetheless created a real boom in cocktails, particularly those based on gin. This is how cocktails like Bee’s Knees, with honey and lemon, or Last Word.

It made from green chartreuse and maraschino liqueur, which are born. The very pronounced tastes of the added ingredients make it possible to mask any little too distinct flavour.

Rum, illegally imported from the Caribbean, made the heyday of Cuba Libre and led to Mary Pickford’s invention. It made from fresh pineapple juice, grenadine and maraschino liqueur.

Illegally imported alcohol was seized from officers in New Jersey in 1929.

• Credits: by Keystone-France / Gamma-Keystone – Getty
The precise origin of Bloody Mary, this vodka and tomato-based cocktail, is not precisely known, but it would date from Prohibition. And would have been invented in France. According to the versions, the cocktail would have been created for Ernest Hemingway to escape his wife Mary Welsh’s anger, who accused him of returning drunk.

The drink, supposedly odourless, was to save him the ire of his “Bloody Mary”. The other version is that a barmaid in exile in France following Prohibition created the cocktail at Harry’s Bar in the 2nd arrondissement of Paris. The name could be inspired by Marie Tudor, the daughter of King Henry VIII of England, reputed to have persecuted Anglicans in the sixteenth century … From there, to create a parallel with the persecution felt by bartenders deprived of their profession, there is only one step.

The precise origin of Bloody Mary

In 1933, after the economic crisis, sums embezzled by the gangster’s thanks to contraband alcohol. The anti-alcohol policy was considered a failure, and the Prohibition ended with the repeal of the 18th Amendment of the constitution of the United States by a recent amendment, the XXI. It is the only Amendment to the body to have been wholly repealed to date.

Cocktails, if they do not entirely disappear from circulation, are then rarer. It was not until the 1980s that Prohibition’s memory, far behind, resurfaced and ignited the imaginations. His aesthetic becomes a fashion phenomenon and, with it, the science of the cocktail reappears. The success will be such that even Tom Cruise will take the features of a memorable bartender in a less notable film, Cocktail (1988), carried by the Beach Boys’ music.

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