Mix Yourself a Cocktail Before Enjoying this Prohibition Documentary

Smithsonian Channel tells two-part story of the history of America's doomed booze crackdown.


Drinks, Crime, and Prohibition. Smithsonian Channel. Monday, June 11, 8 p.m.

'Drinks, Crime and Prohibition'
'Drinks, Crime and Prohibition'

One of the silver linings of Prohibition, if you're looking for them, is the birth of the cocktail. Bartenders, for the most part, didn't experiment much with flavored drinks; Americans mostly took their liquor hard and straight. But, confronted with the truly heinous taste of the rotgut stuff coming out of jury-rigged stills during Prohibition, customers revolted. Bartenders started disguising the stuff with with exotic mixes of sugar, fruit and liqueurs.

One that caught on quickly was a concoction of gin, absinthe, and lemon juice that the bartenders called, in a fit of mordant whimsy, the Corpse Reviver No. 2. Except some of the whimsy began to wear off as the government cracked down on the bootleggers by lethally contaminating one of their common ingredients, industrial alcohol. When 65 people died of the additives in a single day in New York City, the Corpse Reviver No. 2 sadly failed to live up to its name. As federal spin doctors might have put it had they existed, sometimes you've got to poison the village in order to save it.

I learned everything in those two paragraphs from the excellent Smithsonian Channel documentary Drinks, Crime, and Prohibition, a two-part affair that airs on consecutive Mondays. Funny at times, appalling at others, it makes it clear that Prohibition was not just a short and inexplicably nutty chapter in U.S. history but a sinister, mutually exploitative alliance of moralists, racists and Progressive power-mongers that still distorts American politics. "Prohibition looms in our minds unto this day," says Derek Brown, a bartender and informal historian of American drinking habits. "It split us. It changed us."

I'll confess I've never seen Ken Burns' and Lynn Novick's six-hour Prohibition, which aired on PBS in 2011 and undoubtedly covered much of the same ground. But there's no need for comparisons. Drinks, whatever came before it, is a witty and incisive piece of work that both entertains and informs.

The broad Baptists-and-bootleggers origins of Prohibition are hardly a secret, but Drinks colors in a lot of nuanced and fascinating detail.

It traces Prohibition's roots back to its priggish reform movement of the late 1860s. But the anti-alcohol forces didn't make much progress until bespectacled Ohio attorney Wayne Wheeler became its strategist early in the 20th century.

Wheeler merged prohibition forces with other angry political factions. One was the xenophobes horrified that 12 million foreigners had poured into America between 1892 and 1920, the largest immigration surge in U.S. history. Saloons, which many uprooted immigrants used to build new social networks, offered good political cover to shield anti-immigrant groups against charges of bigotry.

"It's not entirely polite to say, I want to get all the Catholics out of America," notes a historian interviews in Drinks. "But it is entirely polite to say alcohol is ruining American society."

And Wheeler found industrial bosses, who recognized the saloons as festering dens of syndicalism where their immigrant workers gathered to talk about unionization, were happy to fund his culture war. Wheeler also hit upon the idea of embedding prohibition in the Constitution to make it difficult to take back; no Constitutional amendment had ever been repealed.

One last lucky break pushed prohibition over the top: World War I allowed almost limitless bashing of German-American brewers (that is, almost all brewers) in the name of bullyboy patriotism. It grew so brutal that one brewer, when a newspaper mistakenly reported his death, called the editor and begged him to "just keep me dead."

The 18th Amendment, which established Prohibition, passed two months after the end of the war and took effect in 1920. The impact was immediate, and staggering.

It created a sullen generation gap that pitted the boys who fought the war, and the girls who joylessly waited for them at home, who thought their sacrifices deserved at least a little bit of a party, against their dry parents.

It bred a corruption so profound and obvious that Al Capone defended himself against charges that he murdered a prosecutor with the outraged declaration that he would never have killed the DA because the man was already on his payroll.

The tsunami of graft made Prohibition utterly unenforceable: Cops, paid about the same as dogcatchers, proved eminently buyable, though nothing like the federal government's Prohibition Bureau agents, who weren't part of civil service and suckled greedily on the twin teats of patronage and bribery.

Worse yet, Prohibition vastly expanded the reach of the federal government into the lives of its citizens. It birthed federal wiretapping as well as federal drug cops—the Prohibition Bureau, which would eventually morph into the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

It created the mass incarceration state with insane penalties; when Herbert Hoover took over the reins of Prohibition in 1928, he rammed through laws upping prison terms for alcohol-related offenses. Even witnessing somebody have a martini could get you three years in prison.

In fact, it's fair to say that Prohibition created the template for all the wars on drugs to follow: The deliberate contamination industrial alcohol with toxic methanol was surely the grandfather of Richard Nixon's disastrous spraying of paraquat on Mexican marijuana fields.

Even more fundamentally, Prohibition for the first time established the federal government's authority to trample what the Supreme Court would later call "the right to be let alone."

"Most Americans did not have a day-to-day relationship with the federal government," says historian Lisa McGirr in an interview in Drinks. "Prohibition changed that. … It was the nursery for many of [now] entrenched habits of the federal government to intervene in the lives of Americans."

Not that there weren't some good times. Imagine living in a world without Eddie Cantor's hit single I Never Knew I Had a Wonderful Wife Until the Town Went Dry. And we all really ought to raise a glass to New York Mayor Jimmy Walker, who—trapped at his private table hidden inside the illegal wine cellar of the 21 Club during a Prohibition Bureau raid—called his police department and had all the feds' cars ticketed and towed. Call it Corpse Reviver No. 3.

NEXT: Trump Endorses Marijuana Federalism Bill

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  1. One of the silver linings of Prohibition, if you’re looking for them, is the birth of the cocktail.

    And here I thought Prohibition almost killed the cocktail.

    1. My first thought too.

    2. Both are true. The cocktail was invented to circumvent certain effects of government shitassery, and government then tried to kill it.

      1. No. This article claims the cocktail was invented because of Prohibition. The other article claims the cocktail was almost killed by Prohibition.

        1. It’s two, (click), two lies in one!

        2. Pre-? prohibition cocktail was a combination of a liquor, sugar, bitters, and ice. It was during prohibition that sweet flavorings were added to the awful liquor available to kill the taste. Prior to Prohibition , the taste of the liquor what is the feature of the drink. During Prohibition, The idea became to kill the flavor of the liquor.

      2. The origin of the term “cocktail” from wiki:

        It was customary to dock the tails of horses that were not thoroughbred … They were called cocktailed horses, later simply cocktails. By extension, the word cocktail was applied to a vulgar, ill-bred person raised above his station, assuming the position of a gentleman but deficient in gentlemanly breeding. … Of importance [in the 1806 citation above] is … the mention of water as an ingredient. … L?ftman concluded that cocktail was an acceptable alcoholic drink, but diluted, not a “purebred”, a thing “raised above its station”. Hence the highly appropriate slang word used earlier about inferior horses and sham gentlemen.

        This adds a whole new level of pleasure when insulting Reason writers for their love of cocktail parties.

    3. Essentially everything in this review/article is fake history.

      1. The deliberate contamination industrial alcohol with toxic methanol was surely the grandfather of Richard Nixon’s disastrous spraying of paraquat on Mexican marijuana fields.

        Calvin Coolidge signed the Marihuana Tax Act before declaring war on Germany and Japan.

    4. Super and Easiest 0nl!nee Home open door forall. Make 2512 Dollars for each month.All you simply Need a DFu Internet Connection and a Computer To Make Some Extra money.

  2. “It’s not entirely polite to say, I want to get all the Catholics out of America,” notes a historian interviews in Drinks. “But it is entirely polite to say alcohol is ruining American society.”

    How is that even close to being true, when people literally said that about Al Smith’s presidential campaign during the era. We even have sitting US Senators today who say that when questioning judges, thus imposing an illegal ‘religious test’. Anti-Catholic bigotry has never been not in vogue.

    1. Your link to quotes by sitting US senators is broken.


        Being a woketarian, I’m not surprised that you’re not familiar with this. Try reading something besides Slate. You’ll learn more.

        The president of Yale University and Notre Dame seemed to notice, since they wrote a letter to the Senate judiciary committee admonishing its members for its line of questioning. Too local for Reason to notice.

        1. You’re right that I didn’t know about that. I guess I have other concerns that take precedence over federal judicial hearings. Of course I’m also not nursing a persecution complex to score some of that sweet identity politics street cred.

          Anyway, I apologize for calling you out. As a member of a historically disadvantaged minority, you can’t possibly be expected to adhere to basic standards of argumentation.

          1. Lolz

          2. Yes, it’s a persecution complex even when it’s irrefutable.

            Fact is that you tried to be cheeky and instead proved that you’re dumb. The article really could have simplified “a sinister, mutually exploitative alliance of moralists, racists and Progressive” to just “progressive”, as that captures all the biggest and moralists in one camp. Just like you.

            1. I’m sure it doesn’t heal the wound to know that she was confirmed despite being a filthy papist. For people of a certain delicate sensibility, mean words have more impact than mere actions ever could.

              1. Yes, religious tests are just fine. Even if they are expressly forbidden in the Constitution. Good, woketarian

                1. It must not have been must of a test considering that (again) she was confirmed, and that nobody pursued a legal case against the Judicial committee members.

                  But since words matter to you more than actions, maybe you can advocate for legislation outlawing hate speech against catholics. That way catholic judges and political appointees will continue to be approved at the same rate as they have for decades, but you will never again be injured by the barbs of other peoples’ words.

                2. So, I’m only converting, not raised in it. But have you met Catholics? Have you met Eddie?

                  Just yesterday Eddie was cracking wild puns before falling asleep on his keyboard and accidentally fighting off Hihn. We’re all the monsters everyone fears.

          3. Lol

    2. Much like anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim bigotry.
      The other is very nearly always the enemy. Tribal religions exacerbate this tendency.

      1. Pretty sure that Dick Durbin and Diane Fienstein are not known for their religious zealotry. Religious bigotry hasn’t been pushed by other religious denominations in the US for a very long time.

    3. That presidential race was the only time that Texas voted Republican in the early 20th century. Solidly Democrat… until a Catholic was the Democratic nominee for president. That’s some fucked up shit there.

  3. It’s hard to believe that at least one aspect of the federal leviathan was actually worse a hundred-odd years ago than it is today. Yay?

  4. “It traces Prohibition’s roots back to its priggish reform movement of the late 1860s.”

    What about the prewar Prohibition movement? Ever heard of the Maine Law of circa 1851?

    Many reformers included prohibition on their to-do list, along with abolitionism, women’s rights, and other ultra-right conservative initiatives (/sarc for that last clause).

    And the prewar Know-Nothings liked to point to the (very obvious) fact that Irish and German immigrants liked to drink. And if you think *all* Know-Nothings were reactionary conservative poopyheads, note that when the national Know-Nothing party tried to split the difference on slavery, many Northern Know-Nothings left their party for the Republicans so they could have a platform for opposing slavery.

    1. They had to rebuild after the Civil War because all the war and killing made booze seem appealing to many soldiers, and probably some civilians. Also the feds adopted a “temporary” liquor tax to fund the war, making the Treasury dependent on liquor (and they could quit any time, but they didn’t, even after the war).

    2. Prohibition was in vogue for a long long time, but was not possible until the 1913 income tax opened up a new revenue source. Before then, the booze tax was something like half of government revenue. Look here.

      1. Repeal the 16th.

      2. The thing about prohibition is it makes perfect sense. One thing I’m amazed nowadays is people not seeing a lot of the evil alcohol brings. It breaks your heart seeing women joining for prohibition because their husbands get drunk and beat them.

        And in that way it’s a perfect teaching moment. Alcohol has horrible consequences. But once government is involved to fix it, things get worse by far. It’s a beautiful teaching moment that should give pause to all those who want to fix man through state intervention.

      3. I was wondering why that wasn’t mentioned in the article. Even if the documentary didn’t cover it, it is a particularly important point especially in a libertarian publication and it’s exclusion would have mattered.

  5. a sinister, mutually exploitative alliance of moralists, racists and Progressive power-mongers that still distorts American politics

    Yeah, no kidding…. The country could not be pursuing policies related to alcohol that are more brain-dead and damaging if it tried. What the hell is wrong with us? The so-called “temperance movement” and its more modern incarnations have an awful lot of ruined (and ended) lives to apologize for.

    1. The War on Drugs hasn’t been as brutal as the gulag, but it’s gone on for longer.

  6. >>>silver linings of Prohibition

    the development and passing down the drive-it-like-you-stole-it-gene, and love of attempted _____.

      1. more on a personal level, law v. outlaw. but yeah nascar came from the bootleggers and I like them for that.

  7. Even the Prohibitionists knew they needed a Constitutional amendment to get alcohol banned.

    End the Controlled Substances Act as its unconstitutional.

    1. Most of what the federal government does goes beyond the scope of the powers defined in that document. Like the entire regulatory apparatus, or transfer payments, or criminal law enforcement. But none of that matters in practice, because the job of constitutional judges is to justify the unjustifiable.

      1. Like pallets of cash.

  8. …. he would never have killed the DA because the man was already on his payroll.
    Awesome, just awesome.

  9. Since Wickard v. Filburn, which expanded Congress’s Commerce Clause powers far beyond what Madison or Hamilton would’ve imagined, wasn’t decided until 1942, is it possible that the 18th Amendment was deemed necessary to ensure that Prohibition would survive a Tenth Amendment challenge?

    1. That, and to stop some wet Congress from repealing it, because you know you can’t repeal a constitutional amendment.

  10. I recall a Reason article that claimed that prohibition had killed the cocktail. Now they say prohibition invented it?

    1. How dare you! We’ve always been at war with Eastasia!

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