“A friend showed me recently an unpublished letter of Henry Clay, written a hundred years ago. In this letter Clay said that the movement for temperance ‘has done great good and will continue to do more’ but ‘it will destroy itself whenever it resorts to coercion or mixes in the politics of the country.’ Franklin D. Roosevelt -August 27th 1932 Sea Girt, New Jersey
I think we all can agree the Prohibition was a complete and utter failure. It destroyed business and created a greater divide among the classes. It was also the catalyst for some of the worst criminals in our Nation’s history. How did it get to that point? Why did the Washington establishment, many of whom drank like fish allow this to happen. It was not as simple as a bunch of prudish do-gooders wielding axes and bibles or cowering politicians on the take. In the end the movement gained momentum because we drank too much, short and simple. Breweries and distillers were completely unregulated. Their fight to stop government from interfering in their profits or their demonetization of the opposing industry toppled their houses of proverbial cards in a drunken stumble. In short, they had it coming.
I think there needs to be some empathy for the Carrie Nations or Henry Clays of the world. The suffering of women, the poor and those who struggle with the drink were often ignored in the name of progress. Just another part of the collective myth that our greatness — or right for greatness — is a birth right, as long as you are born in the right place. We are told this when we are first told anything. In the end, we looked at those who could not control their reaction to alcohol as less than those who could or that it was simply not their fault at all, and by removing the bottle from them we shall solve any issue that lead them to drink in the first place. There are those who still believe that poverty, alcoholism, victims of sexism or a lack of education is a mark of character, not circumstance. So let’s step back for a minute and look at where the greater issues began.
In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the yada, yada, yada. Ok, maybe not that far back, although I’m sure the Aztecs did not remember the conquistadors after a night of drinking Jerez with much kindness.
To Anacreon in Heaven, where he sat in full glee,
A few sons of harmony sent a petition,
That he their inspirer and patron should be.
When this answer arrived from that jolly old Grecian:
Voice, fiddle and flute no longer be mute,
I’ll lend you my name and inspire you to boot,
And besides I’ll instruct you like me to entwine
The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’ vine.
These are the words to a tune that Francis Scott Key used to write the “Star Spangled Banner.” It was in fact a famous drinking song. The tune was actually a very common one in London bars. The seeds of over indulgence were already planted in our most prized and renowned sense of being. The only problem was the amount it would be ingrained in our culture and our lack of understanding of the body’s chemical response.
As breweries became more established, taverns popped up all around the country in both large cities and small towns. But not like today. Imagine walking into a tavern with a long oak bar that serves only Bud, or Miller, or PBR. These bars were contracted out or downright owned by major brewers and in great numbers. In some communities there were taverns for every 150 people including children. These were not the posh cocktail bars you might find on E 23rd Street or even a cool subterranean hangout in Somerville, MA. Several of these bars were set up in poorer immigrant neighborhoods where people had little opportunity for the American dream. All they had was beer and whiskey. Some of these places were so dingy and dirty that they reeked of men relieving themselves right at the bar. That’s why those handy little foot rails are by your feet. Bars were so busy that if you had a place at the bar you stayed belly up at the bar. When nature called, you took take a drink, unzipped and order another round. Easy, peasy, lemon squeezy. Many had a stainless steel troth running along the floor of the bar with a faucet on one end and a drain on the other for just such occasions.
These places also lured people in with the promise of gambling, prostitutes and food — free food. Happy hour is born. The discontent for the immigrant fueled the temperance fire, but there were some good elements to having the ol’ watering hole. Different classes of men could mingle, talk, trade ideas, share a meal or a drink, and if the need arised, have a good old fashioned shoot out. Heck, Thomas Jefferson even wrote the Declaration of Independence at a tavern. But, in the end, the effects of drunken stoopers were too much for the poor women who had to bare the brunt, in many ways, of the good ol’ American bar. Drink responsibly was not in the vernacular.
By 1893 when the Anti-Saloon League formed (kind of like a boring, turn-of-the-century Justice League) the roots of the temperance movement were so widely spread that many states had already adopted the prohibition model. It was really only a matter of time. What’s funny is that if these brewers and distillers self-regulated and worked together instead of pointing the blame at one another, or if Uncle Sam stepped in when children came home intoxicated (which was common in many communities), this unthinkable and silly solution could easily have been avoided. After all, once you tell someone what they can’t have, they will undoubtedly want it with a vengeance.
By 1932, when FDR gave his speech calling for the end of prohibition, the temperance movement had all but fizzled out. As speakeasies grew in popularity, the amount that people drank also grew. But it had become more and more serious as people began drinking beverages that were potentially hazardous. Bathtub gin was the drink of choice. No sazeracs, old fashioneds or Champagne cocktails. This was the time of the sours. These were made to cover the awful flavors of chemically laced spirits.
Canadian whisky was king brown, bars had trap doors, loose floor boards and drop out bar tops. For the first time women who were not ladies of ill repute were allowed to cavort with men in the same bar. The water closet became common place (this was another prohibition first). This was the benefit of the Volstead Act, but raids and gang warfare became a reoccurring theme in 1920s America. When FDR was seeking the presidency the idea that the bible giveth and the bottle taketh away was losing steam. And although that mentality is still at times in our subconscious thought, it was plain to see by its supporters that this great plan for American piety was not working. But alas we live and learn… kinda.
And Now a Word From Our Sponsor
Because brandy would finally be accessible in 1933 I decided to have a go at one of my favorite spirits while writing my little rant here: brandy. Today it’s not fine Cognac, but but rather Spain’s great brandy Lepanto Solera Gran Reserva by Gonzalez-Byass. This is a brandy from Jerez, Spain; better known as sherry (the British bastardization of Jerez pronounced hair-eth). Lepanto is produced in la Frontera de Jerez on the southwestern coast of the country. In a previous blog post we discussed the simple process of brandy being distilled by grapes, so we need to go no further with the basics other than it is the Palomino grape used here, and as the name implies, it is the work horse of Jerez.
The brandy is aged in a system of barrels called solera. This is when you layer oak casks on top of one another. They are all connected and when the bottom batch is ready to be bottled the upper levels of spirit filter down unto the level below, then new batch is added to the top. This will always keep a constant flow of brandy present in barrel. No matter when you start your solera the first wine — or in this case brandy — will always be present in the casks. This will maintain a very steady style of brandy. Because it is aged for 12 years in used Jerez barrels, there is a rich nuttiness on the nose with notes of brown sugar, flan and caramel. The mouth feel is broad and well-structured. It is not the custom of brandy producers to have too much alcohol in the bottle, so the mellow 40 % leaves a creamy texture on the palate. The flan comes through on the mid palate with notes of butterscotch and soft nutmeg on the finish. It is warming without imposing any heat to the chest. It is complex and balanced, and the flavors linger on with a little bit of Mexican chocolate, vanilla and burnt orange peel.
I was originally going to make a riff on the Sidecar as it would have been commonly consumed by prohibition’s repeal, but I opted, by the advice of a friend, to create an Old Fashioned instead. Because there is a subtle elegance in the glass, I wanted to have a relaxed cocktail, I also wanted to bring out some of the richer Jerez-oaked notes and play on the nuttier aromatics by using Fee Brothers Black Walnut bitters in conjunction with the brighter spice if Angostura orange
Gently muddle one slice of Clementine and one Luxardo Maraschino cherry with 2 dashes of Fee Brothers Black Walnut bitters and 2 dashes of Angostura Orange bitters
- 2 oz Lepanto Solera Gran Reserva Jerez Brandy
- 1/2 oz Gonzalez-Byass Nectar Pedro Ximenez Jerez
- 1/4 oz Bigalett China-China
Add ice and stir and roll into a double rocks glass
Thursday, December 5th is the 80th anniversary of the repeal of prohibition. The 21st Amendment brought a lot of changes for much of the drinking culture in the United States. What we now call the Old Fashioned was given its fruit; the larger brewers who could afford to sell soda instead of beer were able to maintain an empire of watery, weak beer as smaller breweries waited in the shadows until the mid 1990s. The wine world lost a lot of footing and unless your name was Paul Mason or Gallo your “Boutique” label would have to wait its turn for the flavors of Reunite on ice to run its course. But with every slow evolution comes a strong revolution. We are now on the footsteps of great distillers, brewers and wine makers. Unlike the German brewer, Scottish distiller or French wine maker we have been given license to innovate. This is why some of the best distillers, brewers and wine makers throughout the old world have begun to see refuge in our colony of libations. Hopefully they are met with more kindness than their predecessors were 200 years ago.