The History of Government and Booze in America in Five Scenes
Excerpted from Give Me Liberty and Give Me a Drink! by C. Jarrett Dieterle (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2020.
America has a long, wildly fascinating, and highly ignoble history with alcohol. From the Whiskey Rebellion to Prohibition itself, the government never seems to learn its lesson: The more it tries to stop the people from boozing, the more passionately they booze.
In order to understand how loony tunes our modern legal system that governs alcohol really is, it’s important to understand how we got here. So let’s review America’s tortured record when it comes to the hard stuff, broken down into five key scenes.
Scene #1: Whiskey Rebellion
It All Began with Our Favorite All-American Hooch
Government and alcohol were destined to be frenemies from the start in America. On the one hand, our Founding Fathers were absolute boozehounds. Most of them drank every day—and lots. In his retirement, George Washington owned the largest whiskey distillery in America. Thomas Jefferson loved French wine. John Marshall loved Madeira. And Ben Franklin loved it all.
But that didn’t necessarily stop the founders from cracking down on hooch. During his first term, George Washington realized that the federal government was short on cash. Egged on by right-hand man and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, he decided to raise revenues by imposing an excise tax on whiskey in early 1791.
Washington and Hamilton made two big mistakes: First, they thought the tax would be popular (LOL!), and second, they designed the tax in such a way that it fell hardest on small whiskey producers. As a result, to put it mildly, backcountry farmers in western Pennsylvania were pissed beyond belief at the thought of government elites jamming an unwanted policy down their throats (sound familiar?).
Unfortunately, their protests against the tax got a little too aggressive. In the fall of 1791, a group of backwoods farmers in Pennsylvania surrounded one of the federal revenue officers tasked with collecting the tax. These men disguised themselves as women, stripped the revenuer naked, cut off his hair, and tarred and feathered him. Then they stole his horse and made him walk home.
This set off a years-long guerrilla campaign against whiskey tax collectors across the western parts of early America. Collectors and their families were threatened, their homes were broken into, and their whereabouts were constantly scrutinized. It all culminated in 1794, when an angry mob of distillers showed up outside the home of John Neville, one of the collectors. Neville was a Revolutionary War vet, but the mob didn’t care. After exchanging some verbal unpleasantries with the mob, Neville armed his slaves and a brief skirmish ensued in which several people were injured.
The mob retreated, but the distillers then showed up the next day over five hundred strong and seeking revenge. Wisely, Neville had fled, and a worse calamity was avoided—but his home was burned to the ground. As rumors continued to fly about a larger follow-up attack on the city of Pittsburgh, President Washington decided he’d seen enough.
He dispatched more than a thousand troops to ride into the backcountry and lay down the law. But George was no armchair president. He put on his uniform and boots and led the damn charge. As Washington was a strong proponent of frequent whiskey rations for all soldiers, it’s safe to assume that his peacekeeping force was well lubricated on its ride west.
The government militia rounded up more than one hundred distillers who were suspected of resisting the whiskey tax. But the evidence was pretty scant—after all, everyone in the backcountry hated the tax, and no one was about to snitch on their neighbors—so only about ten men were ever tried for treason. Only two of these were convicted, and Washington, in his benevolence, eventually decided to pardon them.
I’d like to tell you that things smoothed out after this early hiccup. But we’re just getting started down the bumpy road of our country’s boozy history!
Scene #2: Civil War Era
Because America Wasn’t Uncivilized Enough
In the lead-up to the Civil War, the federal government spent much of its time denying Native Americans the right to buy and possess alcohol. In the 1830s, Andrew Jackson (who else?) led the charge in passing a bevy of laws that rounded up Native Americans, put them in reservations, and took away their booze. This plan failed spectacularly, since the government put the U.S. military in charge of overseeing the reservations. Back then, federal soldiers received a government ration of whiskey each week, which they promptly traded to the Native Americans.
Soon after managing this impressive exhibition of being both racist and incompetent at the same time, the government split apart and the Civil War began. During the war, the Confederacy decided to institute a prohibition against distilling, arguing that the corn used for making hooch should instead go to feeding Southern soldiers. For their part, though, Northern soldiers still drank on the regular, while their leader Ulysses S. Grant drank—and won—his way through the war. (I’m not saying that better access to drink won the North the war, but we can all agree that’s a mighty strong coincidence!)
Make no mistake, though: The North still hated booze too. In the aftermath of the war, the federal government decided that taxing liquor was the best bet for keeping the country solvent. And, as is our way, the people quickly decided resistance was needed to keep themselves afloat. Almost immediately, many distillers went underground with their operations rather than shut down. Brooklyn, New York, led the charge, and by 1869, the borough was home to dozens of illegal distilleries.
On one serene fall morning in 1870, a peaceful group of thousands of federal soldiers landed there by boat, fanned out through the streets of the Vinegar Hill neighborhood, and calmly searched for illegal stills. Just kidding—they smashed everything in sight. Using axes, crowbars, and fists, the soldiers shattered more than twenty stills and thousands of barrels of liquor in a few short hours. Alcohol was literally streaming through the streets, the air smelled like sour mash, and molasses from rum stills coated the trees.
Soon the rebellious Brooklynites banded together and began tipping off distillery owners whenever they caught a whiff of an impending raid. They also began a delightful tradition of giving the federal soldiers brick showers whenever they dropped by. (Don’t know what a brick shower is? Throw a pallet of bricks out of your nearest window. There—a brick shower!) Eventually, an IRS agent was killed by one such unfortunate weather event, taking the borough’s relationship with the feds to a whole new level—or low.
Unfortunately, the government decided that the best way to bring about peace was not to back down. In fact, it decided to continue waging the Brooklyn Whiskey Wars and make the draconian laws even bigger. That’s what we now call Prohibition. Soon, the government was conducting liquor raids on the entire country, from sea to shining sea, and we became the United States of Molasses-Spattered Trees. Nobody learned anything, more people got hurt, and many, many more gallons of alcohol were, appallingly, poured onto the ground.
Scene #3: Prohibition
The most boring party you’ve ever been to
People tend to think that Prohibition just happened: We had drinks one day, and the federal government banned them the next day. But it was a long road the government took to killing fun.
Amid concerns over eroding morals and rising crime, many folks started blaming a familiar target: the saloon. Religious groups and prominent progressives joined forces to collectively yell at us. They wanted us to clean up our act, clean up our streets, and sober the hell up. Groups like the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union rose to power, arguing that alcohol was ruining marriages and causing widespread societal decline.
Alcohol—as always!—was easy to scapegoat during this period. Even today, we often like to blame it for all our bad decisions. But during the march to Prohibition, many Americans started arguing that the government should step in and just take away the stuff completely. Sadly the Prohibition push also had racial and xenophobic undertones, as many temperance advocates focused their anti-drinking ire on African Americans as well as German and Scotch-Irish immigrants. Prohibition started at the state and local level. Many states started allowing individual counties to enact dry laws, and in 1881, Kansas was the first to enact a state-wide booze ban in its constitution (Maine had passed a state prohibition statue in 1851 but it was repealed in 1856).
Booze-ban fever spread like wildfire, and in 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, banning hooch nationwide, was enacted into law. When it officially took effect one year later in 1920, the Prohibitionists had won. But then everything started to fall apart.
Since the moment humans discovered how to make alcohol—which scientists currently peg at about 7000 B.C.—we have been obsessed with it. It turns out, to the surprise of absolutely no one, that human beings love booze. And every time our government tried to limit or take away our access to our beloved spirits, we humans have found a workaround. So of course an absolutely bonkers black market sprang up during Prohibition.
The countryside was awash with illegal stills, underground speakeasies, and moonshiners. Sure, the feds tried to ramp up enforcement, and they grew increasingly aggressive in their crackdowns. But the angrier the alcohol po-po got, the more recalcitrant our Prohibition-era ancestors became. Even many of the politicians who voted for—and were charged with enforcing—Prohibition drank regularly! The people just simply wouldn’t behave.
And, unfortunately, with black markets come a lot of other unsavory things, like organized crime and violence. The longer Prohibition dragged on, the uglier it got. Law enforcement crackdowns often turned into bloody beat-downs, and some cops even started colluding with bootleggers by accepting bribes. Eventually everyone got tired of it all.
So, just short of fifteen years after it was enacted, Prohibition was repealed on December 5, 1933, by the glorious beast known as the Twenty-first Amendment. The booze could finally flow freely again! Naturally, everyone celebrated the best way they knew how: They ordered a drink!
Scene #4: Post-Prohibition
And then things get really weird
Every year on December 5, nerdy booze enthusiasts gather at the local brewery or pub down the street and salute the anniversary of Repeal Day. But Prohibition never really went away completely. Sure, we can buy alcohol from sources other than the neighborhood moonshiner nowadays, but our right to booze is far from inalienable.
First of all, Prohibition downright destroyed a massive amount of boozy knowledge. Generations of distilling, brewing, and cocktail-
making expertise were lost during our decade-plus dry period. Legal breweries and distilleries shut down, and bartenders were forced to find other employment or move abroad.
With them went a rich, boozy culture and tons of high-quality spirits. As drinks historians have noted, in the decades after the repeal, bars started using lower-grade alcohol and sweet mixers rather than the pure spirits and fresh ingredients of the pre-Prohibition era. It took our country years to rebuild a quality drinks market—in fact, the process is still ongoing, as evidenced by the current craft spirits boom.
Beyond heritage and culture, Prohibition killed a lot of our freedoms. In the aftermath of Prohibition, the people who hated alcohol still hated alcohol. And just because they failed in their misguided experiment to take it away from us didn’t mean they were just going to give up. The Twenty-first Amendment may have eliminated the power of our national government to ban booze, but it granted broad booze-restricting powers to state governments. The temperance folks promptly used this newfound local authority to limit our access to alcohol all over again.
Several states decided to stay dry after Prohibition. The last dry state—say hello, Mississippi!—ended its alcohol ban in the 1960s, but other states—ahem, Kansas—still banned on-premise drinking at bars all the way up until the 1980s. And even today, numerous states have dry counties where it remains illegal to sell alcohol.
Furthermore, in the states that didn’t continue to ban booze outright after Prohibition, the hand of the government still held strong. Many states became what are known as “control states,” which means the state government controls all sales of alcohol. Other states implemented various strict rules, such as mandating that alcohol producers could not sell their products directly to consumers.
As with dry counties, many of these rules and laws never left us. More than a dozen states still control all retail-level alcohol sales within their borders, and pretty much every state in America continues to limit how producers can sell booze to customers. Nearly every whacky alcohol law mentioned in this book traces its lineage to this post-Prohibition period, when the anti-booze bureaucrats pretended to go away but really just changed costumes and continued to torment us.
Scene #5: Present Day
Just Go Back to Bed (The Legal Hangover Lives On)
OK, but surely things must be somewhat better nowadays, right? Well, in 2015, a young African American student from the University of Virginia was turned away at a bar when his fake ID was rejected. He left peacefully, only to be approached on the sidewalk a few minutes later by two armed agents from the Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Authority. The agents decided the best course of action was to body slam the student to the ground. One bloodied face and several lawsuits later, many Americans were asking, Why do glorified “mall cops” have guns, and why are they still trying to smash everything in sight like it’s Prohibition all over again?
Instead of choosing to thoughtfully enforce good laws that protect health and safety—like those against overserving alcohol or driving under the influence—cities, states, and federal agencies are still spending their time overenforcing the stupid ones. So here we are, more than a century later, still debating government, grog, and our right to party.
The sad result is that brewers, distillers, and vintners across the country are sometimes prevented from doing even the most basic tasks. They’re often unable to sell directly to their customer base, they’re limited in how they can speak about and advertise their products, and they even face restrictions on how to make their spirits.
Meanwhile, customers in more than a dozen states still have to schlep to drab government-operated liquor stores that appear to be from the set of a bad Cold War movie to buy their booze. Many places also restrict alcohol sales on Sundays and holidays, and some locales force consumers to buy room-temperature beer. And if we want the convenience of having alcohol shipped directly to our doors? That’s often impossible too.
I’d like to be able to tell you that we live in an enlightened era of order and reason, and that when it comes to alcohol, the morals and rules of yesteryear have finally been updated for the times. But several centuries after our founding, we’re still suffering from a government-induced hangover, and we’ve yet to find the aspirin.
An Offer You Can’t Refuse
Makes 1 drink
The famous Negroni depends on high-quality sweet vermouth to balance the bitter notes of Campari, resulting in a strong but pleasing sipper.
The Godfather is a great film. It’s also a story of a corrupt criminal family. So, as a general rule, if your liquor law gives supremacy to a Mafia-like system of store owners, it might not be the best law. Case in point: In Texas, until recently, it was generally illegal for one person to own more than five liquor stores. I say “generally,” because it was legal for a group of blood relatives to own as many liquor stores as they liked. That means powerful store owners often spread ownership of liquor shops among their extended family—with Cousin Jimmy owning five stores, Uncle Vic owning another five, and so on. Sound familiar? Thankfully, this loophole was repealed in 209. But Texas lawmakers aren’t ready to give up on terrible laws just yet, as publicly held companies still can’t own liquor stores in the Lone Star State.
1¹⁄₄ ounces sweet vermouth, preferably Dolin Rouge Vermouth de Chambéry
1 ounce gin
1 ounce Campari
Strip of orange peel for garnish
Combine the sweet vermouth, gin, and Campari in a mixing glass filled with ice and stir for 10 to 15 seconds. Strain into a rocks glass filled with ice. Garnish with the orange peel.