Today is January 17th, which means it’s National Bootleggers Day! While this probably doesn’t mean much to most people, I like that it gives us a chance to think about alcohol and what it means to us. I’m amazed at how far alcohol laws in this country have come in the past 100 years, but I think it’s equally important to remember what it took to get there, and how far we still have to go.
Ninety-eight years ago today, on January 17th, 1920, the Volstead Act (or National Prohibition Act) was enacted to carry out the intent of the Eighteenth Amendment, which prohibited the sale of alcohol, leaving the country dry for a painfully long 13 years, and in turn, opening the door for illegal bootlegging and organized crime.
It didn’t take long for people to realize that prohibition wasn’t working, and bootleggers quickly came to the rescue of thirsty Americans, providing illegal alcohol to those seeking it out. They started by smuggling booze from Canada or Mexico, and later, many distilled their own liquor in backwoods and other secluded areas and sold it to speakeasies, which popped up by the thousands.
All of this was happening not long after World War I, and our country was going through a new period of extreme highs and lows, from the Roaring Twenties to the Great Depression. Crime rates were skyrocketing, and most bootleggers weren’t just supplying alcohol to consumers — they were also involved with mobsters, loan sharks, gambling, prostitution, extortion, political corruption and murders.
It quickly became clear that the Volstead Act’s primary target was the working-class poor. Law officers would often look the other way while many of the upper classes acquired large stockpiles of alcohol, buying out inventory of liquor retailers before the act took effect, and poor families would be punished for having just one or two bottles of homebrew.
In just the first six months of Prohibition, the federal government filed cases for over 7,200 Volstead Act violations, and by the end of the first year, that number jumped to nearly 30,000 cases, and continued to rise dramatically throughout the course of Prohibition.
Perhaps ironically, today is also the birthday of Al Capone, who is arguably the most infamous Prohibition-era bootlegger. Also commonly known by his nickname, Scarface, Capone was the co-founder and boss of the Chicago Outfit, a mafia organization which was involved in a wide range of criminal activity, but was most well-known for distributing illegal alcohol during Prohibition. Capone was later convicted of tax evasion, imprisoned at Alcatraz, then passed away several years after his release from cardiac arrest after suffering a stroke at age 48.
Finally, on March 22nd, 1933, thirteen years after it all began, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Cullen-Harrison Act into law, legalizing beer and wine with an alcohol content of 3.2% or less, and a few months later on December 5th, 1933, the ratification of the twenty-first Amendment repealed the Eighteenth Amendment.
So how should you celebrate this monumental day in history? Perhaps with a glass of Templeton Rye, or as they affectionately call it “The Good Stuff.” This Prohibition-era whiskey company was started in the small town of Templeton, Iowa, and according to them was Al Capone’s whiskey of choice. If you’d like to raise a glass in celebration, you can try one of the classic cocktails below. Cheers!
2 ounces rye whiskey
1 ounce sweet vermouth
1-2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 Maraschino cherry (for garnish)
- Pour the whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters into a mixing glass filled with ice. Stir until outside of the glass is very cold.
- Place a maraschino cherry in a chilled cocktail glass. Strain the contents of the mixing glass over cherry and serve.
1 teaspoon absinthe
2 ounces rye whiskey
3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
1 sugar cube
A few drops water
- In a mixing glass, muddle a sugar cube with a few drops of water, then add the bitters. Mix until dissolved, then add the rye. Add plenty of ice, and stir for about 30 seconds.
- Pour the absinthe into a chilled Old Fashioned glass, and rotate glass until the inside is well coated; discard the excess. Strain the liquid from your mixing glass into the Old Fashioned glass. Twist a piece of lemon peel over the drink and serve.