There’d never been a more advantageous time to be a criminal in America than during the 13 years of Prohibition. At a stroke, the American government closed down the fifth largest industry in the United States – alcohol production – and just handed it to criminals – a pretty remarkable thing to do.
With over 2,000 distilleries operating in the United States, and at least one in each state, it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when alcohol was illegal. But about 100 years ago, the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages was constitutionally banned by the Eighteenth Amendment.
A growing temperance movement promised less poverty and crime, as concerns for public health and morality intensified.
From 1920 to 1933, prohibition effectively closed the operating distilleries, decimating the industry, and changed the landscape of whiskey-making in the United States forever.
The Lead-up to Prohibition
Prior to prohibition, the American whiskey trade was booming. There were roughly 3,000 distilleries in operation in the United States, along with 4,000 breweries.
The first temperance societies began cropping up in the United States during the American Revolution, which initially looked to “temper” or reduce alcohol consumption. In the 1820s, Evangelical Protestants linked alcohol production and consumption to a variety of moral and criminal problems, including the destruction of families, violent crime, and public drunkenness.
The movement began to call for a total abstinence from alcohol. The “drys” as they were called gained an increasing political influence during World War I, as the United States declared war on Germany, and German Catholics who disapproved of the temperance movement lost their power.
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In some states, legislatures began enacting their own bans prior to prohibition. By 1916, 23 states had laws against saloons, and some banned manufacture of alcohol entirely.
The Unequal Application of the Law
Prohibition had the effect of separating the “Haves” from the “Have Nots.” The 18th Amendment banned the manufacture, sale, importation, and transportation of “intoxicating liquors.” It did not ban the consumption of these liquors.
Knowing that prohibition was coming, those with the means stockpiled their supplies, so that they would have a private cache once the Amendment went into effect. The poorer working class however would be left with far fewer options.
It was possible in some circumstances to ferment your own beer and wine. Some gangs, such as the Genna brothers, made a profit selling one-gallon copper stills so people could make their own liquor out of fruit, beets, or even potatoes. But the consequences if caught were catastrophic for a family.
Grain farmers also lost out, and many farmers were left without consumers for their crops. Some found that burning the now near-worthless grains in the fields was cheaper than harvesting them.