Seventy-seven years ago
today this past Sunday, one of the largest P.R. gaffes in the short history of a nation with a lot of P.R. gaffes was corrected. The National Prohibition Act, passed in 1919 and enacted in 1920, was repealed after what must’ve been the 13 most surreal years to be alive and in America.
For so many reasons, this day fascinates me.
First, there’s the obvious, mind-blowing concept of living in a country where alcohol is illegal. One day, you’re loading cases of gin into your truck like any other day. The next, it’s no more giggle water for you, palooka. No more glass of Merlot with supper. No more Bloody Mary at brunch or icy tallboy after a day bagging grass clippings in the yard. No more nothing, see? Sorry, mac. Bar’s closed.
NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO my dandruff shampoo.
It’s even crazier to think about the historical significance, not just of Prohibition, but also of its eventual repeal on December 5, 1933. I’m no historian, but I’m struggling to think of another time when our leaders (in this case, many of whom had supported the outlaw 13 years earlier) have had the sagacity to pull up their suspenders, walk to a podium in front of the whole nation, blow into the mic, and announce, “Ladies and gentlemen of the United States, we fucked up big time.” No war, no North vs. South, no brother vs. brother. On this point, the whole nation agreed. We needed a drink.
Still, it’s hard to read about Prohibition and the years that followed and not have a creepy feeling that we kinda wouldn’t be here without it. The first cocktail revolution had already taken place 50 or 60 years before. But by 1920, your average slaughterhouse butcher or ironworker wasn’t sipping Sazeracs by the fireplace. They were pounding back whatever was cheap, strong, and abundant. Once illegal though, that changed somewhat. For most everyday drinkers between 1920 and 1933, mixology was no longer a luxury; it was a necessity. The preponderance of rotten bathtub booze during those dark years led to major creative innovations behind the bar. People got inventive because they had to. And when the stock market crashed in 1929, the whole country went on a ten-year bender. By the time legal booze came back, our grandpappies and meemaws were sloshed on Sidecars and French 75s. They were still poor, hungry, and homeless, but they were finally drinking the good stuff.
Sadly, it didn’t last. Like everything else, cocktails eventually became an industry. Faced with a thousand prefab choices, America eventually slipped back into the habit of snatching the cheapest, easiest, and bluest thing off the wine cooler shelf on our way home from work.
But then, in 2007, a funny thing happened. Banks started not having money. Corporations started throwing live bodies overboard. People started freaking out, man. And cocktail books, blogs, and self-proclaimed experts started coming outta the woodwork.
Is it a coincidence that on the heels of one of the worst economic crises since The Depression, artisan cocktails began making a huge comeback? I dunno. But it’s fun to think there’s something biological at work. Some American-evolved creative cocktail gland that starts working overtime in the face of adversity, cranking out juniper-flavored hormones by the pint.
America likes to characterize itself as a country that fights through the tough times, coming out stronger on the other side. I guess. But every night when the sun sets on our self-described heroic struggle to survive, we all go home and get soused. I love that about us.
I also love that we don’t celebrate Repeal Day, at least officially. Who wants to get all ritualistic about remembering that awful, bourbonless, alternate reality? Not me. Better it remains one of those rare times when everyone—politicians, boozehounds, bootleggers and church ladies alike—can just shut up and let The U.S. Constitution do the talking.
SECTION 1. The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.
Fuck yes pass the whiskey.