In the US they are going to party like it's 1933
It's 75 years since the Great Depression brought an end to Prohibition. Across the US drinkers will mark the occasion with the top tipple of the speak-easy – a cocktail.
Friday 05 December 2008
In selected watering holes across America, it's party time tonight. In Washington, the festivities will centre on the venerable City Tavern in Georgetown; for $90 (£61), you can taste the cocktail offerings of the capital's most expert bartenders (or "mixologists" as they like to term themselves), listen to a jazz band and, in the words of the invitation, "party like it's 1933".
In San Francisco, after a parade through the streets, celebrants will make their way to the 21st Amendment Brewery, gaining entrance to the revelries within by use of a special password. Similar events are being held in New York, Chicago, New Orleans and other US cities associated with an understanding acceptance of human frailty and having a good time.
By now the reason for these goings-on will be plain. Tonight is the 75th anniversary of the end of Prohibition – of 5 December 1933 when Utah became the deciding 36th state to ratify the 21st amendment to the constitution, and restore to the country's citizens the basic human right to go out and have a drink.
Rarely in the annals of human experience has so well intentioned an idea been such a monument to failure as America's 13-year attempt to eradicate the evil of alcohol. The National Prohibition (or Volstead) Act was passed by Congress in October 1919, overriding the veto of President Woodrow Wilson. The following January, the Act was ratified as the 18th amendment of the constitution after it had been approved by the required three-quarters majority of US states.
The "noble experiment", as its supporters termed it, did indeed lead to a modest decline in alcohol consumption and an overall improvement in public health. But those meagre and transient advantages were nothing compared to the unintended side-effects of Prohibition: a drastic decline in federal and state revenues, a surge in clandestine binge drinking and of course speak-easies, bootlegging, moonlighting and mobsters, not to mention the criminalisation of millions of US citizens, including some its most eminent politicians, who were technically flouting the law of the land.
Prohibition's passing belongs to a distant age; you have to be 90 years old at least to be a surviving violator. But this 75th anniversary has a rare resonance. Prohibition was brought down by its growing unpopularity, and the indisputable evidence the measure was doing far more harm than good. But the final nail in its coffin was the Great Depression, at its height in 1933. Why should extra misery and deprivation continue to be heaped upon a population suffering so much hardship already? "The human suffering that it [Prohibition] entailed," wrote H L Mencken, journalism's bard of the age, "must have been a fair match for that of the Black Death and Thirty Years War."
Three-quarters of a century on, the US is in the throes of its worst financial and economic crisis since the Depression, one which some experts say could yet turn into the real thing. Then, as now, a new President is taking office – and the comparison most commonly drawn for Barack Obama is not with JFK but Franklin Roosevelt who, three weeks after taking office in March 1933, signed an amendment to the Volstead Act, allowing production and sale of light beers and wines.
That Utah, citadel of the teetotalling Mormon church, was the state which put repeal over the top nine months later, only proved how disliked Prohibition had become. To this day, it is the only amendment to the US constitution which has been overturned by another.
The challenges facing Mr Obama are many and massive. But the country's drinking laws are mercifully not among them. Even so, Prohibition marks American government and society to this day. The modern Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is a direct descendant of the Bureau of Prohibition (later briefly the FBI's delightfully named Alcohol Beverage Unit) that was set up to enforce the 1919 act. Hundreds of "dry" towns and counties are still to be found in the US, many of them in the South and Appalachian states. Mississippi only ratified repeal of Prohibition in 1966, while more than a dozen states still ban the sale of hard liquor on Sundays.
The American wine industry has long since recovered from its near-death experience during Prohibition – the country is now the world's fourth-largest wine producer – but not until 2005 did the Supreme Court overturn post-Prohibition bans on direct shipment of out-of-state wines to consumers.
The most tangible enduring legacy of the age is on what Americans drink. Before Prohibition, the most popular liquor was whiskey. But to distil even the most barely passable whiskey takes time and technology – two commodities hard to come by when making any illegal product.
The great beneficiary of the age was gin and, by extension, the cocktail. Neutral grain spirit needs no ageing, and is thus easier to produce. But, with water and dosed with juniper flavouring, it provided a tolerable substitute for real gin. Gin also mixes well. Thus an explosion of cocktails, of exotic colours and ingredients to mask the fiery raw taste of the illegally produced spirit. Never has necessity been a more prolific mother of invention. Cocktails had long since been around – legend has it that the martini, the most famous cocktail of them all, was invented in Martinez, California, in the mid-19th century – but Prohibition was the making of them, and of that other quintessentially American institution, the cocktail party. Still, it was a relief when everything became legal again. "They're disappearing fast, thank goodness, those vicious liquid heartburns", ran a Martini & Rossi advertisement in a 1934 issue of Vanity Fair, "People are going back to civilised cocktails. Martini."
These days, not much is heard about temperance. But the Prohibition Party, founded in 1872 and thus the third oldest US political party after the Republicans and Democrats, survives to this day. Its candidate, Gene Amondson, even won 643 votes in last month's presidential election.
Most important, the mindset that produced Prohibition lives on. The cocktail, it is said, is enjoying a new golden age. But a third of American adults don't drink at all, and the country ranks only 40th in the international league table of alcohol consumption. Indeed, since the late 1970s, consumption per head in the US has been falling steadily.
The great "war on alcohol" between 1920 and 1933 may have ended in resounding defeat. But an American belief that human vices can be eradicated, and human nature perfected, persists, visible in the continuing, scarcely less futile "war on drugs" declared by Richard Nixon in 1971 and, who knows, maybe in George Bush's "war on terror" as well. But don't let such sombre thoughts spoil the party tonight.
Drink your own: Classic recipes
Cocktails existed long before Prohibition but their qualities of disguise – especially if a colourless drink such as gin was mixed with fruit juice or other ingredients – made them a defining drink of the era. They were especially popular in bars which served the super-rich, such as the Colony in New York. Classic Prohibition cocktail recipes include (for one person in all cases):
Shake well with cracked ice:
1 oz gin
¾ oz grapefruit juice
2 tsp maraschino
Strain into chilled cocktail glass.
Shake well with cracked ice:
1 ¼ oz cognac
¾ oz fresh-squeezed lemon juice.
Strain into chilled, sugar-rimmed cocktail glass
1 tbsp gin
1 tbsp Cointreau
1 tbsp lemon juice
Mix all ingredients and strain and pour into a cocktail glass.
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