30 April 2010

Liquor King


beer We all know the results of the US prohibition on alcohol sales: good jazz, a proliferation of speakeasies … oh, and organised crime. This week the government increases the price of tobacco (why not go further, like Australia, and put cigarettes in brand-free packets that look like poison?). It also came down on ‘gardening’ shops that have been selling cannabis growing tools for years, but chooses to cherry-pick a careful report on alcohol abuse.

So this aside in a long piece in Smithsonian magazine on Wayne B. Wheeler, the US religious zealot who managed to get the prohibition law passed, had special resonance. Just how hard was it to get around a loophole?

As declarative as the 18th Amendment was—forbidding “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors”—the Volstead Act allowed exceptions.

You were allowed to keep (and drink) liquor you had in your possession as of January 16, 1920; this enabled the Yale Club in New York, for instance, to stockpile a supply large enough to last the full 14 years that Prohibition was in force.

Farmers and others were allowed to “preserve” their fruit through fermentation, which placed hard cider in cupboards across the countryside and homemade wine in urban basements.

“Medicinal liquor” was still allowed, enriching physicians (who generally charged by the prescription) and pharmacists (who sold such “medicinal” brands as Old Grand-Dad and Johnnie Walker).

A religious exception created a boom in sacramental wines, leading one California vintner to sell communion wine—legally—in 14 different varieties, including port, sherry, tokay and cabernet sauvignon.

Early closing in pubs might see an increase in churchgoers there for the altar wine.

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