January 4th, 2024
In today’s blog, we examine how the US prohibition era significantly shaped drinking habits in the USA and global drinking habits and culture. We’ll explore the lasting impact of Prohibition on contemporary alcohol consumption, uncovering new behaviours, traditions and norms that still influence us today.
We’ll also examine how alcohol addiction may have been influenced during this time, concluding with this particular period.
What was Prohibition?
Have you ever woken up after a night of one too many drinks and told yourself, ‘Never again’? Well, that was Prohibition in the US. From 1920 to 1933, the US government banned the production, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages.
So, why did they do this? Well, some members of the government felt as though alcohol was causing all sorts of problems like crime, poverty and family issues. They believed banning alcohol would make society healthier and happier.
But it didn’t work out exactly as planned. Instead of making things better, Prohibition led to a rise in illegal speakeasies, where people secretly drank, and gangsters like Capone became big shots in the illegal drinking business.
Eventually, that same higher-up realised that Prohibition wasn’t solving the issues and was causing more harm than good. People missed their drinks, and the government missed out on tax money. So, in 1933, they decided to reverse their original plans, leaving it in the hands of state laws to decide whether to keep the ban in place or allow alcohol to become legal again. The 21st Amendment ended Prohibition and let people enjoy a legal drink again.
4 interesting changes during & after prohibition
Looking back at the prohibition era, a person could be forgiven for viewing the events that unfolded as a type of entertaining social experiment. Societal norms changed, and a sense of rebellion was formed as drinking was driven underground. In this section, we’ll look into how this era of Prohibition brought some big changes, some of which are still echoed in the things we do in today’s world.
1. Social rebellion and the birth grounds of feminism
Prohibition changed how people viewed alcohol in society, as drinking went from being a normal social pastime to something rebellious. Men were forced underground to illegal bars, but it was also a huge turning point in history for women.
You see, Prohibition made it more acceptable for women to drink. According to historian Mary Murphy, women “made, sold and drank liquor in unprecedented fashion”.
“In all aspects of the liquor business,” she writes, “women moved into spaces that had once been reserved exclusively for men.”
But why was this? A law passed in 1907 made it illegal for women to be in bars or areas where alcohol was served, meaning it was unacceptable for a woman to be seen with a drink in her hand in public. But during Prohibition, this all changed. Restaurant nightclubs started to spring up illegally and welcomed both men and women, marking a departure from the norms of the time.
This inclusion sparked a ripple effect as women began rediscovering old recipes for alcohol and taking matters into their own hands by producing it at home. A surprising twist emerged as women defied societal expectations and reigned in this clandestine world.
Women not only engaged in producing homemade liquor but also started running their own speakeasies, covertly serving their creations to a diverse clientele. The speakeasies symbolised rebellion, particularly for young women who embraced this newfound freedom. This rebellion extended beyond the spirits they served; it manifested in changes in fashion, with bobbed hair and shortened skirts becoming outward expressions of their defiance against societal norms.
This cultural revolution paved the way for an unprecedented level of respect for women who crafted and served alcohol. As men who initially resisted this shift found themselves dependent on these women for their only source of alcohol, opposition quickly faded away. The women who ran these speakeasies became iconic figures, symbolising a profound social rebellion that stood as the largest of its kind in American history at the time.
2. Global influence
While Prohibition was a domestic policy, its impact resonated globally. The ban on American liquor production led to the rise of alternative sources, often from other countries. One of the most famous examples is the Al Capone/Canadian Club Whiskey collaboration.
In the early years of Prohibition, the Ontario Walkerville distillery found an unexpected and influential customer in none other than the notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone. This unlikely alliance saw thousands of cases of Canadian Club making the journey from Canada, through the sea, to Detroit, as Capone engaged in the covert smuggling of this prized Canadian whisky. Capone’s choice of Canadian Club was strategic, driven by the high-quality control that set it apart from the less refined American ‘rotgut whisky’ prevalent during this time.
Canadian Club’s journey to the hands of Americans was a significant chapter in its history, as it thrived and left an enduring mark on the American market. Despite the challenges posed by Prohibition, the exceptional quality of Canadian Club secured it a lasting and coveted position in the United States. The demand for this Canadian whisky soared, creating a niche that set it apart from other inferior moon-shine brands.
Fast forward to the present day, and Canadian Club is not only one of the best-selling but also one of Canada’s most widely available single malt whiskies. Its journey from an illegal operation during Prohibition to a global phenomenon is a testament to its enduring quality and the strategic choices made during a pivotal period in history.
Today, Canadian Club’s reach extends far beyond its Canadian roots, as it is distributed and available in over 150 countries worldwide.
3. Prohibition may have started cocktail culture
The emergence of cocktail culture during Prohibition also introduced new ways of enjoying alcohol, shaping the landscape of modern mixology. So, how did this happen?
Imagine all the makeshift distilleries churning out concoctions with all the finesse of a back alley operation. The result? Alcohol that wasn’t just unregulated but downright cringe-worthy in taste and quality. So, what’s a passionate alcohol lover to do? Get creative. Enter the era of masking, enhancing and downright transforming the sorry state of bootlegged alcohol.
Suddenly, people were tossing aside the old ways and embracing a brave new world of mixology. Fruit juices, sodas, and sugars—ingredients that were once never even thought about took centre stage. Drinking had now become an experience, a flavorful journey through uncharted territory.
As the concoctions got more inventive, the demographics of drinkers underwent a transformation too. As we mentioned previously, drinking holes had just welcomed a new wave of customers: women. The classic whiskey may have been too harsh of a taste for new drinkers, so many found a haven in cocktails. It was a sip away from tradition, a venture into a realm where individual preferences reigned supreme.
Nowadays, mixology bars, interesting cocktail ideas, names and ingredients are present in most bars, pubs and nightclubs across the world. While this era of prohibition wasn’t directly responsible for the enjoyment of cocktails, it certainly helped with the popularity!
4. Prohibition may have influenced alcohol addiction
Alcohol addiction may not have been taken as seriously back then as it is now, but that’s not to say alcohol addiction wasn’t rife. With hard spirits being the go-to choice for most drinkers at the time, it would be safe to suggest that there were many issues with alcohol. So, you’d assume that Prohibition would have forced people to quit alcohol, right? Far from it. As we’ve already ascertained, illegal alcohol making was everywhere, and to get more bang for their buck, coupled with a lack of awareness on how to make alcohol properly, drinks were being sold that were of a very high alcohol percentage level. We can’t imagine this did any good for the ones who were already showing signs of alcohol addiction, and we can safely suggest that it probably spawned more problematic drinkers.
But, once the prohibition act was reversed, it brought an incredible shift in how people treated alcohol. Now, it was up to the states to decide whether or not drinking should be allowed. The flaws of the new regulatory system were evident. Still, it effectively steered consumption away from hard spirits, with a notable return to a low percentage of beer as the beverage of choice.
This shift was significant not only in terms of social dynamics but also in addressing concerns related to alcohol addiction. Despite the challenges, the regulatory measures succeeded in keeping alcohol consumption below the levels experienced during the prohibition era.
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(Click here to see works cited)
- How Prohibition Encouraged Women to Drink – Jstor Daily, daily.jstor.org/how-prohibition-made-womens-drinking-more-acceptable/. Accessed 30 Nov. 2023.
- “Canadian Club Whisky: 1858.” Canadian Club Whisky | 1858, www.canadianclub.com/history/. Accessed 30 Nov. 2023.
- Jeffrey Miller Associate Professor. “The Prohibition-Era Origins of the Modern Craft Cocktail Movement.” The Conversation, 13 Sept. 2022, www.theconversation.com/the-prohibition-era-origins-of-the-modern-craft-cocktail-movement-109623. Accessed 30 Nov. 2023.