100 years ago this month the demon teetotaler struck America and over the next 13 years that misguided road to hell would grow nothing but wonderful roses.
Temperance from the 1840’s in England had raised its god-fearing evil head again. Prohibition in 1920 would bring radical change to not only America but also other countries around the world along with some unexpected and extraordinary benefits we take for granted today.
Prohibition was started by churchly rural American folk who strangely connected alcohol with domestic violence. 87 whisky soaked years later, sadly, domestic violence is at all-time highs.
Lets look at Americas first family, the Kennedys, and their non-role in Prohibition.
As the lore goes Joe Kennedy made his fortune in the back rooms of speakeasies as the number one bootlegger in the world. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
But while the patriarch of the Kennedy clan certainly had his issues, including playing fast and loose with the pre-1929 crash stock market, trading in illicit liquor wasn’t one of them, according to David Nasaw, author of The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy.
“As his biographer, I would have loved to have discovered that he was a bootlegger,” says Nasaw. “It would have given me all sorts of great stories. I tracked down every rumor I could find and none of them panned out. It became really clear that all of the stories about his bootlegging were just farcical.”
Now For The Real Roses
Single Malt Scotch
Prohibition would put Scotch single malt on the map. This is quite true, with Mafia players from New York traveling to Ireland and Scotland to secure whisky for a dry and thirsty country. While Irish distillers said no thank you to the criminal plan, the Scottish distillers said let's talk.
A tiny distillery located in the small highlands town of Pitlochry, called Edradour, was allegedly owned by the American mob during prohibition, as the story goes, much of its production was to have ended up in America by various means during Prohibition. The American Prohibition market was an important one for the tiny Edradour distillery.
One result of this was Edradours continued “trade” with America beyond the Prohibition era when the cargo ship the SS Politician struck rocks just off the north shore of Eriskay in the Western Isles on 5 February 1941, en route to New York, a significant proportion of the content of the 264,000 bottles of Scotch Whisky in its hold was produced at Edradour. As soon as the crew were safe, the islanders smartly set to work saving the cargo.
It is thought that over 2,000 cases or 24,000 bottles were liberated before the authorities arrived on the scene. In the aftermath, police and customs officers searched the entire island and several islanders were actually jailed for theft, not something advertised in Compton Mackenzie's bestselling 1947 novel "Whisky Galore" based on the story of the SS Politician, or the film it spawned.
I have visited the Edradour distillery many times, met the current owner, Andrew Symington, he is a gentleman and ace businessman about the farthest from a mob guy you can get.
Before Mr. Symington's ownership I can only imagine the appeal of this hidden gem of a distillery to the mobsters being tucked away like a moonshiner’s still in a glen next to a perfect stream.
Today the distillery is so beautiful and tidy, but in the twenties, its appeal of isolation must have felt perfect for the illegal manufacture of whisky for the NYC mafia.
Prior to 1920 scotch whisky was not a popular drink anywhere else in the world outside of Scotland, France and the UK. Prohibition was the spark the started the billions of-dollars fire of the water of life that exists today.
Work arounds existed for the well off, as alcohol was legal for medicinal purposes, as we see single malt scotch was apparently a digestive just before dinner for Winston Churchill
Records show that exports of Scotch whisky to Canada, the then British West Indies, the French Atlantic islands of St Pierre and Miquelon – indeed to anywhere within reach of the United States – simply exploded overnight. The number of Vessels used for ‘rum running’, (carrying wines and spirits to destinations outside United States territorial waters) was Incredible. It was not quite a safe undertaking, but the dangers where small compared with the risks run by the bootleggers, who were responsible for landing the illicit goods on United States territory and ensuring their safe delivery.
Scotch Whisky prospered under these conditions, particularly as the official distilling of American domestic whiskies had ceased.
Canada To The Rescue
Then to the north there was Canadian Sam Bronfman who distributed Canadian whisky and other spirits to the American border that was then shipped by rum runners to speakeasies across the United States. No law was actually going to quench or deny America's thirst for the demon rum.
The great thing to come from Sam Bronfmans, aka Seagrams, involvement in the illicit movement of his product, was his shame. Alcohol had been made illegal in Canada four years earlier, in 1917. Sam made a fortune by breaking the law.
Bronfman's embarrassment evolved into a kind of obsession with respectability, something he thought he might earn through the quality of his products.
He described his perspective on quality this way: ‘Look, when a man goes into a store for a bottle of Coca-Cola, he expects it to be the same today as it will be tomorrow. The great products don’t change. Well, our product’s not going to change either.’
Under his direction, Seagram’s set out to develop strict protocols to help it maintain standard flavor profiles from year to year. The company achieved this by blending large numbers of components that could be adjusted for each individual batch.
Even a straight Bourbon such as Four Roses, incidentally one of his later acquisitions, adopted this same approach. The company evened out batch differences by adjusting proportions of 10 different base Bourbons to achieve one consistent flavour.
Racers Start Your Engines
Prohibition was the clear main root of NASCAR racing as we know it today.
From North Carolina to Spokane, Washington, bootleggers during Prohibition used “souped-up” automobiles to stay ahead of federal agents and local police while hauling illegal whiskey on back roads in the dark of night.
The idea was fairly simple – take a car that looked ordinary on the outside, modify the engine for greater speed, remove the floor boards, passenger and back seats to store as many cases of liquor as possible, install extra suspension springs to handle the weight, a dirt-protecting plate in front of the radiator and run the prohibited booze to customers by outsmarting or outrunning the authorities.
To elude federal Prohibition agents, sheriffs and cops on the road, these daring “runners” needed sharp driving skills to speed and maneuver along dirt, gravel, single-lane, and occasionally, paved roads after dark and at times with their headlights turned off.
Even before Prohibition came to an end in 1933, racing these high-performance cars became a popular pastime among the “runners” in North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia and elsewhere in the South. They raced each other’s cars, many of them Ford models, on weekend afternoons out in the country on makeshift dirt tracks. Such were the bootlegger roots of the stock car, and what would evolve into the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, or NASCAR, in 1947.
Booze runners looked for good mechanics who knew how to make their engines run faster and handle better than police vehicles. This became even more important in 1932, when Ford introduced its flathead V-8, with eight cylinders, a powerful car that runners started using as did police departments to keep pace.
By the nature of their illegal liquor business, veering fast along curvy, mountainous roads, runners taught themselves to be the best stock car drivers of the era and beyond. Although national Prohibition ended in 1933, production of illegal whiskey continued for years afterward to avoid taxes and regulations. Many future NASCAR drivers cut their teeth bootlegging illegal moonshine in the 1940s, such as NASCAR Hall of Famer Junior Johnson, who won his learner’s permit by running corn mash hooch before his NASCAR debut in 1955.
Edmund Fahey of Spokane, Washington, who smuggled cases of Scotch whiskey from Canada inside his modified Buick across the border in the early ’20s, wrote in his 1972 autobiography that runners had to guard against getting flats in the era’s flimsy tubed tires and be good roadside mechanics, almost like a race car driver and crew in one.
“The rum smuggler put his cars through mechanical tests as tough as those devised by test drivers,” he wrote. “Tires were put to the severest possible tests. Heavy loads, hauled over the toughest of roads often at reckless speeds, kept the rubber on your car always under the utmost strain. Therefore, the rum smuggler at all times used the best tires that could be bought. In fact, several companies developed tires especially for the rum-running trade. Many a runner served time in jail simply because his rubber failed him at some critical moment.”
The Cocktail Culture
During the prohibition many speakeasies began to experiment with mixed drinks. Illicit booze came with consistency problems, some with dangerous side effects even death. Bartenders at the speakeasy came up with cocktails to infuse their efforts and insure returning customers and to allay fear of being poisoned. Classic cocktails like the sidecar, the bee’s knees and the French 75 all made their debut during Prohibition.
In the Meantime
So many distillers and brewers stayed in business limping through prohibition by doing other things. Coors would get into pottery, Pabst would do cheese, Yuengling and Anheuser-Busch would make ice cream. All sorry substitutes for their original endeavors.
The Forbidden Becomes a Temptation
As we see much like the parent who denies their child sweets, the push back was extreme.
By the late stages of the 13 years of Prohibition breweries and distillers were all flaunting the laws. Brewery's in NYC were producing 200,000 gallons of beer a week. In the end Americas thirst for Alcoholic drinks no constitutional amendment could stop.
Everyone did it
In 1925 an Italian immigrant who settled in Western Pennsylvania would ferment wine, selling it for the crazy high price of 5 dollars a bottle. There are photos of a room 25x30 filled to the ceiling with bottles of wine. He made his sales predominately to the African American community, white Appalachia would be suspicious of an Italian dialect regardless of his fine product. His name was Luigi Cimini, not a Sam Bronfman, but my grandfather, who would use his prohibition profits to purchase land, start a small coal mine, buy a small apartment building, and open one of the first trucking companies in America west of the Alleghenies, all in the face of loan denials by bankers carrying anti-immigrant biases during the time. Thats a few roses for sure!
100 year later
So tonight when you sit with your favorite pint, dram, glass of wine or cocktail, pause for a moment and be thankful for those who drank alcohol before you and took on a 13 year drought caused for no good reason. Think of those who had to break laws, drive fast, and creatively beat a misguided amendment brought about by the demon teetotaler 100 years ago.