Whisky in the Time of Prohibition

On 17th January 1920, one of the most incredible government experiments in modern democratic history began, changing lives almost overnight. The Volstead Act, which forbade manufacturing, selling and transporting intoxicating liquors, had in fact come to effect the day before. However, the authorities granted one last day at the bar for the people before Prohibition came down as a prolonged nightmare.
When it did, America saw an era marked by organized crime, large scale smuggling, drug wars, illegal liquor sale and increasing restriction of democratic rights.

Boston business magnate Joseph P. Kennedy, father of John F. Kennedy, is believed to have made his fortune distributing liquor during the Prohibition. Conjecture turned into conviction when he agreed to supply the Harvard alum with liquor on their tenth reunion in 1922. Rumor also has it that he was working with Al Capone. With the end of Prohibition, after thirteen years, Joseph Kennedy’s company, Somerset Importers, became the American agent for Dewar’s.

Exempted from this law, however, were priests or rabbis who could consume or distribute wine as part of rituals, as well as physicians who could prescribe whisky for various ailments. Although the amount was regulated, most doctors and clergy members who retained their right to obtain and disseminate liquor, made huge profit from the privilege. However, not all physicians were prescribing whisky to make money, a few did to rebel against the temperance movement which intervened in their profession. And so did the bootleggers and moonshiners.

Ban on Rye

Illicit drinking dens flourished in big cities. By 1927, nearly 30,000 speakeasies were operating nationwide. Since Canada had favorable liquor laws, smugglers would use anything from false floorboards in automobiles, or false bottomed suitcases or baskets, to even pig carcasses and canned fruits to disguise liquor bottles and bring them to Detroit, since it was closer to the border and made distribution convenient. When the Michigan State Police once raided a small bar in Detroit, they found a congressman, the local sheriff and the mayor drinking their fill. But that was not new. Members of Congress could turn to Capitol Hill’s famous bootlegger George L. Cassiday, popularly known as the “Man in the Green Hat,”if they wanted liquor. Cassiday would make up to twenty five deliveries a day, of whisky, moonshine, scotch and bourbon. This went on for five years while the Capitol Police turned a blind eye. In 1925, when he was arrested, he pleaded guilty and started selling liquor in the Senate Office instead. Much later, Cassidy confessed to selling liquor to 80% of Congress during the Prohibition.

Of all the speakeasies and other illegal joints, Manhattan's Stork Club was the most famous. Oklahoma whiskey peddler John Sherman Billings along with a trio of New York mobsters founded the saloon on West 58th Street, in 1929. When the club was raided in 1931 three days before Christmas, the police found dozens of bottles of hooch hidden behind sliding panels, and a 700 pound safe stashed with the club’s profits. That, however, didn’t keep the club from gaining popularity, hosting people like Ernest Hemmingway, Frank Sinatra, and Marilyn Monroe in the 40s and 50s, until it closed down in 1965.

Making it through the Dark Ages

 The Prohibition era also saw bootleggers using denatured ethyl alcohol with wood alcohol to make cheap whisky, which was called “rotgut,” and Lindol mixed with extract of Jamaican ginger to make “Ginger Jake”, mostly for the working class. Both, however, were damaging to nerve cells and other internal organs, and ended up paralyzing, blinding and even killing hundreds of people. Over 750 people died in New York, and 15,000 in just one county in Kansas by the end of 1926. When the Treasury’s Prohibition agents raided 55 speakeasies around the city, seizing 480,000 gallons of whisky, 98% contained traces of wood alcohol or other poisonous additives.

From 1921 to 1930, Victor Lyon, a German-born physician kept a secret journal of booze recipes. If the recipes and formulas for making spirits were published during the Prohibition, it could have landed the doctor in jail. For people, during the Prohibition, brands did not matter, the whisky did. Whiskies like Old Fitzgerald and Old Grand-Dad, which claimed to be medicinal, was still being produced under government supervision. They have only grown larger with time. But several distilleries like William Foust, from Glen Rock, Pennsylvania did not survive the onset of Prohibition.