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99th Anniversary of Prohibition

January 16th, 1919 marks the ratification of the 18th Amendment, ushering in the beginning of Prohibition. This year marks the 99th anniversary of the commencement.

Prohibition was being aided by the Temperance Movement: an assembly of suffragists, religious communities, political reformers and upper-class business owners. They had high hopes for a dry society because they believed alcohol propelled crime and lead to poor health. Initially, the government had been hesitant to pass into law the 18th amendment, due to the fact they were receiving a horde of taxes off of alcohol sales. (The year before Prohibition went into full effect, alcohol sales skyrocketed; millions of bottles were purchased for stock-piling.) After the Revenue Act of 1913, which reinstated compulsory income tax, the government had the necessary monetary collateral to proceed. Thankfully (or at least for my profession), the Amendment was repealed, and the 14-year “absence” of alcoholic beverages came to end on December 5th, 1933.

How does Prohibition still affect us? Many of our national and state governance in regards to alcohol are still based off many of those original laws, especially when it comes to manufacture and sales. The Volstead Act, passed in 1920, still defines what beverages are considered alcoholic: libations over 0.5% ABV. Anything currently at, or below, this alcoholic content is considered non-alcoholic. Most states deal with many of these laws internally, as the Federal Government allows each state to govern as harshly as they wish — as long as it doesn’t contradict national legislation.

Regulations vary and cover such topics as these:

  • where, and when, one can purchase beer, wine, and liquor
  • the quantity of alcohol one can purchase at one time
  • as an individual, how much alcohol can be brought into the state or across state lines
  • the highest amount of ABV allowed (see Utah)
  • dry counties (see North Carolina)

Some weird or antiquated, yet intact laws also include: the sale of warm beer in Indiana stores, alcohol can’t be served or sold when polls are open in Kentucky or South Carolina, and Massachusetts’ Liquor ID Card.

As many of us know, being told that you can’t do something instills a certain amount of curiosity and determination to do the opposite. See, for example, over a decade of law-breakers. The Black Market expanded, an unwarranted increase in crime occurred, bootlegging appealed to all walks of life, and alcoholism upsurged. And although I don’t wish to skim over the malicious history that derived from Prohibition, I do, however, want to focus on the positive. What wonderful creations do we have to thank Prohibition for? The creation of speakeasies, the commencement of the booze cruise, NASCAR, and a renaissance of distillers, winemakers, and brewers across the United States.

Keep in mind that home distillation is still illegal, which originally was to prevent moonshining — also the birthplace of NASCAR — but now, moonshine has since been commercialized and is sold in liquor stores across the US. (Bathtub gin also originated in the Prohibition era.) Home winemaking and brewing emerged during this time. For those who tried their hand at wine, one could purchase wine bricks (compressed and dehydrated grapes) and add water for immediate consumption. Note that consuming alcohol during Prohibition was not illegal, and medicinal and sacramental wines were authorized for ingestion. Sacramental wine is how a couple of the oldest US wineries stayed afloat and continue business as usual. The iconic properties of Beaulieu, Beringer, and Louis Martini were a few of the wineries still allowed to sell wine. Plenty of individuals continued to make wine in secret; the Biale family came to use code-name for their under-the-table Zinfandel: Black Chicken.

These were dreary times for the nation’s palates, as liquor was more accessible and became the general go-to. WWII really upped the population’s tolerance to strong drinks, where it didn’t matter what was being consumed, as long as it was a stiff one. Quality winemaking in America didn’t really come back into play until the 1960s. Since then, every state is now producing wine and homebrewing is allowed nationwide. North Carolina was one of the pioneer states to get involved in the craft beer scene in the early 90s. There are more and more small distilleries popping up, offering small-batch products with local ingredients. We have come a long way since Prohibition’s beginnings, and I look forward to seeing the future advancements of the beverage industry. If history tells us anything, alcohol has been and will continue to be a staple for mankind.

– Laura, Fearrington Sommelier