Classic cocktails, like this French 75, were popular is the speakeasies during Prohibition in the United States. Rumour has that classic cocktails might be making a comeback at Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa later this month.

By Jim Wrigley

For a bar person, I tend to talk a lot about booze-free cocktails, alternatives to alcohol and healthy drinking. This may been seen as tapping into the cultural zeitgeist that transcends societal divides, and for a number of reasons.

Not only is it healthy, both mentally and physically, to abstain at least occasionally from alcohol, it is also financially beneficial and socially acceptable. It may even be, dare I say it, cool to proclaim one’s proclivity toward teetotalism.

This is nothing new. In fact, 2020 marks 100 years since the last major trend in going dry culminated in one of the great failed social experiments of the modern era.

Before Prohibition came into existence in the United States, the temperance leagues had been on the rise from the mid 1800s — a response to the growing issues they warned about caused by the demon drink. This was the Golden Age of the cocktail, and the tendency of predominantly urban Americans toward excess eventually led to the end of the party. The “cocktail” itself, defined as a heady mix of spirit, sugar and bitters (the Old Fashioned being one of the most popular) was seen as a morning drink, a way of overcoming the ill effects of over-consumption the night before. Some people drank morning, noon and night, whereas others were less than impressed with the behaviour.

State after state went dry, as rural Protestant groups, religious leaders, Ladies Temperance movements and scores of wealthy lobbyists said enough was enough. On 17 January 1920, they put a cork on alcohol for good — or so it was thought. Ultimately, Prohibition failed spectacularly. But did it work at all? Were the American people teetotal for nearly 14 years?

In a word — no. While consumption of alcohol initially decreased for the first couple of years, enforcement of the ban was woefully underfunded. By 1925, alcohol consumption was at 70% of its pre-Prohibition level, with the cities skewing the figures massively versus the dry rural communities.

It should be remembered that drinking alcohol was technically still legal; it was the “manufacture, sale and transportation of intoxicating liquors” that was banned. Various loopholes existed and were taken advantage of: For example, a doctor could prescribe a pint of 100-proof spirit every 10 days and it would be supplied by one of the few distilleries still licensed to operate. Sacramental wine was another exemption, so not only did church services see a boost in attendance, but the number of clergy licensed to obtain the wine also increased — and wine orders jumped by 800,000 litres a year.

Moonshine and bathtub gin were also popular, although both came with their own toxic perils. It is estimated that about 1,000 people died from tainted alcohol every year during Prohibition.
Bootleggers ran many risks, but the best of them gained celebrity brand status, such as Capt. Bill McCoy, whose Barbadian rum was of such consistent quality, the term "The Real McCoy" became synonymous with a genuine product.

One fun option to enjoy alcohol came to life early on in Prohibition, a type of place which is still spoken about 100 years later: the speakeasy.

Speakeasies, so named because you could “speak freely” in them, drew their clientele not just for the booze, but also in some part due to the romance of stepping outside the law.

Various ingenious methods of disguising the venues were employed. They could be hidden in a church, a barber shop and even a library. One accessed these hidden watering holes through secret entrances, speaking a soft password to gain entry.

Art deco design lined the crafted spaces and crept into the fashion of the flappers and bright young people who frequented them. The most famous places attracted writers, film stars and singers. For the first time, men and women ate, danced and of course drank together in public, all the while happily breaking the law.

There was also a rise in the variety and style of entertainment as live music such as jazz and swing filled these speakeasies with a party mood and the Roaring Twenties earned its moniker.

A combination of factors led to the end of Prohibition. After the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression, not only did people want to drink legally again, but many argued for the taxes and jobs the alcohol industry would create. One of the biggest champions was President Franklin Roosevelt, who rode into the White House on a landslide of votes after campaigning on the repeal ticket. After ratifying the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution at 6:55 p.m. on 5 December 1933, Roosevelt proclaimed: “I believe this would be a good time for a beer.”

The speakeasy is now a lost relic of a bygone era. Or is it? Let me tell you a secret — later this month at Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa ... shhh ...

Jim Wrigley is the beverage manager at Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa.

This article originally appeared in the March 2020 print edition of Camana Bay Times with the headline "Remembering the speakeasy as the prohibition turns 100."