New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach (right) watches as Prohibition agents pour illegal liquor into a sewer in 1921.
New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach (right) watches as Prohibition agents pour illegal liquor into a sewer in 1921.

The Puritans arrived in Boston in 1630 on a ship that carried plenty of beer—and 10,000 gallons of wine.

Hard drinking is a tradition that came over on the Mayflower. 400 years later we’re still struggling to find a balance between revelry and righteousness

When the news arrived from Utah, cannons boomed in New Orleans, sirens howled in San Francisco, boats in New York harbor blasted their foghorns and the finance committee of the Chicago City Council adjourned to a tavern so the pols could quaff a snort of legal booze for the first time in 13 years, 10 months, 18 days, 7 hours and 27 minutes.

It was Dec. 5, 1933—75 years ago this fall—and the news that sparked the momentous national celebration was the long-awaited passage of an amendment to the United States Constitution: Utah voted to become the 36th state to ratify the 21st Amendment, which repealed the 18th Amendment, which had banned the production and sale of alcoholic beverages across the land since 1920.

“Prohibition is dead!” an electric sign in Times Square announced, and a mob of 10,000 roared its approval. “A thousand bartenders reached in unison for the Scotch, rye or gin,” wrote reporter John Lardner, “and 50,000 customers bumped elbows for the honor of absorbing the first legal drink.”

In Manhattan, a joyous crowd celebrated by lynching an effigy of “Old Man Prohibition” from a flagpole on Broadway. In Chicago’s Drake Hotel, a scantily clad woman popped out of a 10-foot-tall champagne glass as drinkers cheered. In Boston, revelers wandered from saloon to saloon, singing off-key renditions of old drinking songs or engaging in what the Boston Globe described as “sidewalk displays of wrestling ability and hog-calling.”

But revelry did not rule everywhere. In many places, including Georgia, Kentucky and Washington, D.C., booze was still banned by state or local laws, which tended to throw a wet blanket on the festivities. In Atlanta, the celebration of Prohibition’s demise was not nearly as spirited as the celebration of its birth nearly 14 years earlier, when, the Atlanta Constitution reported, “The Anti-Saloon League, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and other dry organizations paraded on Peachtree to Five Points, where old John Barleycorn was burned in effigy.”

Today, the long, bitter conflict between “dry” and “wet” Americans seems quaint and absurd, a strange tale from ancient history. But that colorful clash illustrates an enduring aspect of American life, a conflict between two sides of our national personality—the secular “pursuit of happiness” versus the religious pursuit of righteousness. America’s epic battle over alcohol is one of the divisive cultural issues that have periodically roiled American politics, like slavery and segregation or the more recent controversies over gay rights and abortion.

Getting drunk, plastered, loaded, tanked, sloshed, smashed, stewed and stoned is an old American tradition. But so is preaching fiery sermons against “demon rum,” attacking saloons with hatchets and enacting laws to prevent your neighbors from getting drunk, plastered, sloshed, smashed, stewed and stoned.

The story of alcohol in America is an inspiring tale of courageous men and women who ventured across stormy seas, conquered a teeming wilderness, created a great nation and built an awesome industrial colossus—and did it all while knocking back heroic quantities of strong liquids.

Booze came to America aboard Mayflower. Like most British ships in 1620, Mayflower carried more beer than water. One reason was that beer was safer than water, which was often contaminated with noxious wastes. Another reason was that passengers preferred to pass the tedious nine-week voyage in a pleasant beer buzz.

The Pilgrims drank so much beer on Mayflower that they’d almost run out by the time they reached America, and they may have landed at Plymouth simply because they didn’t have enough beer to fuel the search for a better place. “We could not now take time for further search and consideration,” one passenger wrote, “our victuals being much spent, especially our beere.” Not long after landing, the Pilgrims began making wine out of wild grapes. They served it to the Indians at the first Thanksgiving, although you probably didn’t hear about that back in kindergarten.

The Puritans are not known as party animals, but they arrived in Boston in 1630 on a ship that carried plenty of beer—and 10,000 gallons of wine. Despite their well-deserved reputation as killjoys, the Puritans didn’t oppose drinking, they merely opposed drinking too much. “Drink is in itself a good Creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness,” wrote Increase Mather, the famed Puritan preacher, “but the abuse of drink is from Satan.”

All over the colonies, settlers quaffed vast quantities of this “good Creature of God.” When they could get it, they drank imported wine, brandy and port, but such luxuries were expensive and tended to mysteriously disappear en route from England in accidents attributed to “leakage.” Consequently, thirsty colonists began making booze out of just about everything, as recounted in this little ditty from the 1630s:

If barley be wanting to make into malt,
We must be content and think it no fault,
For we can make liquor to sweeten our lips,
Of pumpkins and parsnips and walnut-tree chips.

Among the most popular concoctions in colonial-era taverns was a drink called “Flip.” The bartender filled about two-thirds of a mug or pitcher with beer, added a dollop of rum, sweetened the cocktail with sugar, molasses or dried pumpkin and then stirred it with a red-hot poker, which made the drink bubble, gurgle and steam. Good for what ails you, especially on a cold winter’s night.

Tea is the beverage most commonly associated with the American Revolution, but beer and rum are far more deserving of that honor. Even though Samuel Adams was a devout Congregationalist (see “The Revolutionary Gospel According to Samuel Adams,” p. 42), he recruited his Sons of Liberty in Boston taverns, causing Tories to mock him as “Sam the Publican.” And the patriots who dumped British tea in Boston harbor had fortified themselves for their mission by downing several bowls of rum punch. Later, General George Washington boosted his troops’ morale with a daily ration of rum. “The benefits arising from the moderate use of strong Liquor,” he explained, “have been experienced in all Armies and are not to be disputed.”

Unlike today’s milquetoast pols, America’s Founding Fathers were eager tipplers. James Madison liked to start his day with a tumbler of whiskey. John Adams breakfasted on what his son described as “a large tankard of hard cider.” Washington owned one of Virginia’s most productive whiskey distilleries. Thomas Jefferson was an avid wine connoisseur and so was Benjamin Franklin, who wrote an ode to drinking that concluded with this lovely couplet:

That virtue and safety’s in wine-bibbing found
While all that drink water deserve to be drowned.

One of the first crises of the newborn United States of America was caused by whiskey—or, more accurately, by a whiskey tax. In 1791 Congress voted to tax whiskey, which proved to be extremely unpopular, particularly in the Appalachian Mountains, where whiskey-making was not only a passion but a major source of cash income for subsistence farmers. In 1794, near Pittsburgh, a motley army of tax protesters rebelled, attacking courts and tarring and feathering a tax collector. President Washington responded by personally leading a militia army to put down what came to be called the “Whiskey Rebellion.”

By then, nearly every American farm contained a sizable apple orchard—not to make apple pie but to make hard cider, which was the country’s most popular beverage, guzzled daily by young and old alike. “In rural areas, cider took the place not only of wine and beer but of coffee and tea, juice and even water,” wrote culinary historian Michael Pollan. “Indeed, in many places cider was consumed more freely than water, even by children.”

The cute little tykes would knock back a tumbler of hard cider with breakfast and then proceed off to school with a pleasant buzz, and nobody worried that it would ruin their chances to get into Harvard, perhaps because Harvard served hard cider in its dining halls.

In the early 1800s, Americans drank more booze than at any time before or since—more than five gallons of pure alcohol per person per year. (Today’s figure is about two gallons per adult.) “Americans drank at home and abroad, alone and together, at work and at play,” wrote historian W.J. Rorabaugh in his classic 1979 book, The Alcoholic Republic. “Americans drank before meals, with meals and after meals. They drank while working in the fields and while traveling across half a continent.”

Meanwhile, America’s native-born hard drinkers were joined by hordes of hard-drinking European immigrants who brought the alcoholic crafts of their native lands—Scots-Irish distillers, German brewers and Italian winemakers, each contributing another ingredient to America’s melting pot or, in this case, to America’s cocktail shaker.

As Americans moved west, the first sign of civilization in many new towns was a saloon—or several saloons. In 1876, for example, Dodge City, Kan., contained 1,200 people and 19 saloons. Western saloons sold liquor, of course, but they also served as restaurants, dance halls, casinos, brothels, courtrooms, post offices, funeral parlors and, on Sunday mornings, churches.

Saloons also provided their customers with cultural offerings, some better than others. “At the upper end of Main Street is a one-horse beer hall, called by courtesy a concert garden, where a pianist and violinist have performed so far without getting shot,” reported the Anaconda, Mont., Standard in 1897. “Occasionally a woman, whose face would stop a freight train and voice would rasp a sawmill, comes out and assists the pianist and violinist in increasing the agony.”

But America’s firewater was not always sold in saloons and frequently wasn’t even marketed as liquor. Much of it was bottled in patent medicines bearing such wonderful names as “Kickapoo Cough Syrup” and “Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound” and promoted as healthful elixirs.

Sold in drugstores and advertised in traveling “medicine shows,” patent medicines were touted as cures for everything from colds to cancer. Actually, they cured nothing but they did provide relief from physical, mental and spiritual pains with the same secret ingredient found in whiskey—ethyl alcohol. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, advertised as a cure for “female complaints,” contained 18 percent alcohol. Peruna, America’s most popular patent medicine, was 28 percent alcohol. Hostetter’s Celebrated Stomach Bitters contained 47 percent alcohol—more than your average whiskey—and was said to have steadied the nerves of Union soldiers at the Battle of Gettysburg. Paine’s Celery Compound, advertised as a “Nerve Tonic and Alternative Medicine,” contained a mere 21 percent alcohol, but the booze was fortified by a dose of cocaine, which no doubt contributed to its popularity.

“More alcohol is consumed in this country in patent medicines than is dispensed in a legal way by licensed liquor vendors,” Samuel Hopkins Adams wrote in his famous 1905 Collier’s magazine exposé of the hidden ingredients in patent medicines, which influenced the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act.

Part of the popularity of patent medicines was their appeal to a growing segment of the American population—prohibitionists. In fact, a patent medicine called “Old Dr. Kaufmann’s Great Sulphur Bitters,” which contained 22 percent alcohol, targeted prohibitionists with ads featuring an endorsement by Mrs. S. Louise Barton, “An Indefatigable and Life-Long Worker in the Temperance Cause.” For prohibitionists, such patent medicines were a godsend, enabling them to stay pleasantly (but respectably) tipsy while toiling in the great national crusade to rid America of the demon rum.

Prohibition is incontrovertible proof that you don’t have to be drunk to come up with a really, really bad idea. Stone cold sober but intoxicated on the powerful elixir of righteous idealism, American prohibitionists believed that the demon rum and its church, the saloon, were the world’s prime sources of evil. “When the saloon goes,” said Ernest Cherrington, a leader of the Anti-Saloon League, “the devil will be ready to quit.”

The American temperance movement is as old as America itself, but it became a political force in the mid-1800s, fueled in part by a bias against immigrants, including Irish and Italian Catholics, who were stereotyped as shiftless alcoholics. After the Civil War, it spawned two powerful groups—the Prohibition Party and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, whose slogan was “For God, Home and Native Land.”

The WCTU’s most famous member was Carry Nation, a Kansas minister’s wife, who led bands of women into saloons, where they sang hymns to the patrons and greeted bartenders with a cheery “Good morning, destroyer of men’s souls!” When those efforts failed to dry out Kansas, Nation prayed to God for direction and was awakened by a heavenly voice saying, “Go to Kiowa.” She went to the town of Kiowa, where she invaded three saloons, smashing the liquor bottles with rocks. Soon, she replaced the rocks with a hatchet and became famous, traveling across America, smashing up saloons with her trademark wrecking tool. Arrested dozens of times, she paid her fines with money raised by selling little souvenir hatchets.

But it wasn’t the antics of Carry Nation who won the fight for prohibition; it was the political savvy of the Anti-Saloon League, which added clout to the crusade for salvation of individual drunkards by strong-arming government officials. Founded in 1895, the league pioneered many of the techniques now used by modern advocacy groups. Working through local churches—generally rural Methodist or Baptist churches—it raised money, endorsed candidates and successfully lobbied for laws banning liquor in many towns and counties. In 1905 the league demonstrated its growing power by defeating Ohio Governor Myron Herrick, who had thwarted the league’s legislative agenda—an upset that terrified wet politicians.

In 1913 the league kicked off its drive for a constitutional amendment prohibiting liquor with a march on Washington and a massive letter-writing campaign that flooded Congress with mail. The amendment failed in 1914, but gained strength during World War I, when the league exploited America’s anti-German hysteria by deliberately associating beer with German-American brewers. “Kaiserism abroad and booze at home must go,” declared the league’s general counsel and wily Washington lobbyist, Wayne Wheeler.

It worked. Congress passed the amendment in 1918, and the states ratified it so quickly that America’s wets barely had time to finish their drinks and start fighting back. When the new law went into effect on January 17, 1920, evangelist Billy Sunday held a funeral for John Barleycorn in Norfolk, Va. “The slums will soon be a memory,” he predicted. “We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs….Hell will be forever for rent.”

Alas, it didn’t work out that way. Prohibition not only failed to eradicate slums and prisons, it even failed to curtail drinking, a pastime that now took on the allure of a forbidden thrill. Booze was smuggled into the country on “rumrunner” ships, cooked up in countless illegal distilleries, breweries and bathtubs and sold to eager customers in illicit saloons known as speakeasies.

New York City, which had 15,000 legal saloons before Prohibition, soon had 32,000 speakeasies. They came in infinite varieties, and two news­papermen described a few dozen in their 1932 guidebook, Manhattan Oases. The oases ranged from the prosaic Log Cabin (“designed for the visiting Shriner”) to the seedy Julius’s (“as weird as a witch’s Sabbath and as noisome as the psychopathic ward at Bellevue Hospital”) to the elegant 19th Hole (“a nice hideaway for bond salesmen and their customers’ wives”).

Prohibition made selling booze a crime, which naturally attracted criminals to the business. Gangsters battled for control of the liquor trade, and the winners became big businessmen, millionaires with bribe-bought political power. The most famous was Al Capone, who survived a gang war that created 500 corpses to become one of the most powerful men in Chicago. “Somehow I just naturally drifted into the racket,” he told an interviewer from Liberty magazine in 1931. “And I guess I’m here to stay until the law is repealed.”

Dry forces were confident that the law would never be repealed. “There is as much chance of repealing the Eighteenth Amendment,” said Senator Morris Sheppard, “as there is for a hummingbird to fly to the planet Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail.”

Propelled by overwhelming public opinion against Prohibition, a hummingbird reached Mars on Dec. 5, 1933, and celebrations broke out across America.

“Downtown bars were lined five and six deep,” the Chicago Tribune reported the next day. “‘Sweet Adeline’ and other old favorites rang in many of the bars as morning neared. Wags made frequent requests of musicians for the WCTU song, ‘It’s in the Constitution and It’s There to Stay,’ but nobody could remember the tune.”

Repeal did not set off a wild national bender, as some dries had predicted, but it did result in one permanent change in American drinking habits: Respectable women began patronizing bars. “Women Flock To Bars As The New Wet Era Opens,” the Chicago Tribune reported. “Many women are crowding up to be served, something considered not quite right in the days preceding prohibition.”

Before World War I, the saloon was largely a male outpost—one reason many women supported Prohibition. But after repeal, women, who’d recently gained the right to vote, seized the right to drink in public.

In 1935, two years after repeal, two middle-class alcoholics with wonderfully American names—Bill Wilson and Bob Smith—founded an organization that proved far more effective than Prohibition in combating drunkenness. Wilson, a former Wall Street whiz kid, and Smith, a doctor, named their group “Alcoholics Anonymous” and it has spread around the world, helping millions of alcoholics kick the habit.

These days, American liquor stores are packed with a dazzling variety of beverages, ranging from gourmet single-malt Scotches and domestic and imported wines, to neon-colored concoctions like MD 20/20 Blue Raspberry, and new alcoholic “energy drinks” like Joose, which mixes booze with caffeine, ginseng and tropical fruit juices. But the United States is, statistically speaking, a nation of moderate drinkers, ranking somewhere around 20th in surveys of worldwide per capita alcohol consumption, depending on how the data is calculated.

Although our intake is far behind most European countries, American life is suffused with booze. We drink at weddings and wakes—and sometimes at baby showers, baptisms, graduation parties, anniversaries and funerals. We drink to celebrate our triumphs and drown our sorrows—but also just to unwind after another dull day at work.

The influence of alcohol on American culture is so widespread as to be incalculable. Much of America’s greatest literature was produced by alcoholics and hard drinkers—Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Edgar Allen Poe, Eugene O’Neill, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jack London, Jack Kerouac and Sinclair Lewis, whose classic 1927 novel about a corrupt evangelist begins: “Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk.”

Much of America’s best art has also been produced by hard drinkers, including Jackson Pollock, who enjoyed spilling paint but not his beloved whiskey, and Robert Rauschenberg, who claimed that he drank a quart of Jack Daniels a day, which might explain why he once made a sculpture by sticking a stuffed goat inside an old tire.

Jazz, America’s classical music, was born in the bars and brothels of New Orleans and came of age in Prohibition speakeasies, including the most famous speakeasy of all, New York’s Cotton Club, whose house band was Duke Ellington’s orchestra. And American popular songs contain nearly as many references to booze as they do to love or lust:

Roll out the barrel…
It’s another tequila sunrise…
Whiskey river, don’t run dry…
Wasted away again in Margaritaville…

Alcohol has spawned many of the iconic characters in American pop culture—the cowboy knocking back a shot of Red Eye, the hard-drinking private eye, the cynical reporter with a bottle in his bottom file drawer and, of course, the anonymous protagonist of a million jokes that begin, “A guy walks into a bar.”

The United States is a sports-mad nation, and our sports are intimately connected with alcohol. We drink a beer while eating a hot dog at baseball games and sip a Bloody Mary while tailgating at football games. World Series winners celebrate by pouring champagne over their teammates’ heads. And stock car racing—which came into its own as a sport after World War II—was created by moonshiners.

In the southern Appalachians, the culture of moonshine never died out, nor did the desire to avoid paying tax on it. Moonshiners souped up their cars so they could outrun
federal “revenuers” on twisty mountain roads and, in the 1940s, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing began organizing races on dirt tracks. “About all your good dirt track drivers were involved in moonshine,” Junior Johnson, the famous NASCAR driver, told me in an interview in 1999. “That’s kind of the way it started.”

At NASCAR’s first official race in 1949, most of the drivers had learned their craft hauling whiskey. Six years later, Johnson, then one of NASCAR’s biggest stars, was arrested while tending his father’s illegal still in North Carolina and sent to federal prison. When he got out, he started racing again, won the 1960 Daytona 500 and became a folk hero. In 1986 President Ronald Reagan pardoned Johnson for his moonshine conviction. By then, NASCAR’s outlaw image had helped to make it a major spectator sport.

“I think it did appeal to people,” Johnson told me. “I think the exposure of you being a good moonshiner and having the fastest car of anybody—it was sort of a glorified thing, like Babe Ruth hitting his 714th home run.”

Last year, Johnson, now age 77 and retired from racing, returned to his first love—making whiskey. He began marketing a legal, 80-proof concoction called Midnight Moon, which he proudly describes as the “best ’shine ever.”

It just might be the perfect beverage for drinking a toast to the grand and goofy history of booze in America.