The History of Prohibition
in the united states

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.
-Bill Bryson


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.

Related: How is Bourbon Made?

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.

.The 13 Year Drought

Some distilleries went out of business. Others switched to making other food items. But other businesses went on making their alcohol in any way they could, legal or not.

Medicinal Whiskey

Those who were wealthy enough still had a legal loophole to get their whiskey fix. Six producers were licensed to sell “medicinal whiskey” for the low price of $3 per pint of 100-proof. It cost an additional $3 to have the prescription written, so “patients” were out about $6, which is about $80 adjusted for inflation.

These distilleries were: 
  • Brown-Forman
    This distillery is the only one of the six that still exists, and is still operated by the founding Brown family.
  • James Thompson & Brother (Glenmore)
    Glenmore was acquired by Sazerac, but still operates as The Glenmore Distillery
  • Frankfort Distilleries
    Now Four Roses
  • Schenley Products Company
    One of the four largest whiskey producers in the United States at the time.
  • American Medicinal Spirits Company
    This company actually began production during prohibition, and eventually became part of Beam.
  • A Ph. Stitzel Distillery
    Operated by Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle Sr. at the time.

Doctors had a total of 27 ailments to choose from when prescribing whiskey, from digestive problems to domestic issues. Unfortunately the license only allowed producers to sell whiskey, which meant that they (legally) could not distill any more to replenish their warehouses. In 1929, due to dwindling supply, the government allowed these distilleries to produce up to three million gallons per year.

Related: Best Whiskey Subscription Service

This gave medicinal producers a leg up over those who were forced to start production again from scratch in 1933.

Black Market Booze and Organized Crime

Alcohol is a lucrative business, and banning legal sales had unintended consequences. For one, the government was no longer generating the tax revenues that it once had. It’s estimated that the introduction of prohibition cost the federal government a total of $11 billion in tax revenue, plus more in enforcement costs.

Worse, there was now a void in legal production, and consumers turned to the black market, which was quickly overrun by organized crime. Across many states, violent crime actually increased as organized syndicates flourished.


End of Prohibition

Prohibition in the end became a public policy failure. Nonetheless, it had almost completely destroyed whiskey production in the United States, and it would take over 100 years to recover.

By the 1930s, there had been growing public sentiment against prohibition. The sale, production, and consumption of liquor, beer, and wine all remained high, and organized crime had exploited the situation, moving in to make a profit where the government no longer could.

Democratic presidential nominee Franklin D. Roosevelt called for the repeal of prohibition, and was elected shortly after. In February 1933, congress passed the Twenty-First Amendment, effectively repealing the Eighteenth Amendment. It is the only Amendment to be repealed in its entirety.

Whiskey in a Post-Prohibition World

Prohibition irrevocably changed the way Americans produced and consumed whiskey. There had been 17 distilleries in Kentucky prior to prohibition. Only seven of those would be operational post-prohibition. Three quarters of the remaining distilleries were now under just four companies – National Distillers, Schenley, Hirman Walker, and Seagram.

With so few producers left once prohibition was repealed, demand outstripped supply, forcing distilleries to find ways to increase their production.

Related: The 11 Health Benefits of Whiskey

Gone were the days of “small batch” whiskeys aged to perfection. Sacred family recipes were lost or altered forever. Distillers traded their “jug” yeast for faster and less flavorful commercial strains, and looked for techniques to speed up their processes. Some distillers switched to using municipal water rather than well water for ease of use which inherently changed the flavor of the whiskey.

Americans began to look to Scotch and even Canadian whiskey (where prohibition had only been effective for a period of two years) for well-aged whiskey products. Bourbon, the great American spirit, had only ten major distilleries by 1994. During prohibition, Americans developed a taste for cocktails, which they had used to cut the taste of gin and moonshine.

Whiskey was not the only casualty of prohibition. The fledgling wine industry in the United States, particularly California, was completely killed, and would not recover until the 1970s.


So what happened to the Temperance movement in the United States? 

It still exists, albeit with far less political influence. The Anti-Saloon League, which was the most powerful prohibition lobby in America, underwent a few name changes and eventually became the American Council on Addiction and Alcohol Problems. Modern day temperance movements are responsible for sensible warning labels, and anti-drunk driving campaigns.

There are still laws that restrict the sale and consumption of alcohol, allowing for “dry communities.” The three states of Kansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee are entirely dry, with laws in place that do not allow the sale of liquor or wine. These laws must be amended to authorize the sale of alcohol in bars or retail stores.

Craft Revival

Over the past two decades, craft distilleries and breweries have had something of a renaissance, which has pushed alcohol production back to the pre-prohibition levels. In 2009, a number of big-name, small-scale American distilleries all began operating at the same time, thanks to a perfect storm of opportunities.

After the 2008 recession, entrepreneurs who had nothing else to lose began to wade into the whiskey business.

Related: The Different Styles of Whiskey

This was coupled with states passing (or repealing) laws that made it easier for new distilleries to open. In Tennessee for example, the state opened up the ability to distill whiskey from 3 counties to 45 counties, reviving Tennessee whiskey production.

Finally television shows like Mad Men made drinking American (or Canadian) whiskey cool again, fueling the demand for both old and new distilleries.

Hopefully we never go through another Prohibition in the United States again.

Stay Gold.

One response to “History of Prohibition in the United States

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *