The End of Prohibition

The USA is one of the Scotch whisky industry’s most avid customers (and here at the Scotch Whisky Experience, we welcome over 50,000 North American visitors every year), but for a time that wasn’t always the case. Visitor Assistant Cara Fraser talks us through the pivotal period of American history – the Prohibition era.

On this day (5th December) 1933 America repealed prohibition.

Campaigns from groups such as the American Temperance movement put pressure on the government to make the consumption of alcohol illegal, and at one minute past midnight on the 17th January 1920, Prohibition came into full force. For a total of 12 years, 10 months and 18 days America was, by law, a ‘dry nation’, meaning all manufacturing, selling and transportation of alcohol was banned.

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Growing up watching movies like The Great Gatsby, Some like It Hot and Bugsy Malone, I always loved the idea of the classic American ‘Speakeasy’, but it wasnt all glitz, glamour, singing and splurge guns. Riots began almost instantly over prohibition and smuggling became a permanent feature.Many turned to Scotlands whisky industry to wet their nations whistles with mafia bosses such as Al Capone running smuggling operations between the two countries.

The only way it was legal to purchase alcohol during prohibition was as a medicinal aid and as such, believe it or not, a prescription and collection from a pharmacy was required. It is said this is one of the reasons why some whisky bottles remain green in colour as it indicated the medicinal nature of the content, meaning it was allowed it past the strict customs and excise officials!  To this day in some areas of Kentucky it’s said that you can still pick up your favourite tipple at the local pharmacy! And until only a few years ago if you took a tour of the Jack Daniels Distillery in Lynchburg, unlike a traditional distillery tour that ends with a dram, you couldnt taste the final product until youd left the premises.

Across the Atlantic here in the UK there are a couple of intriguing legal twists concerning alcohol that you may not know existed!

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It is illegal to be drunk and in charge of a cow in the UK.  This law, from the Alcohol Licensing Act of 1872, also extends to horses and steam engines with a fine of 40 shillings I think it is maybe a little outdated, but a sensible decision nonetheless!

Any Naval Ships entering the Port of London must gift a barrel of Rum to the Constable of The Tower of London.  This is a law that, while still in place, is rarely enforced, aside from an annual ceremony each year whereby the Royal Navy will send a ship to pull up alongside the Tower Pier for the captain to deliver their alcoholic tax.  Delivering a barrel of rum is now no longer necessary, but it would be a very nice job to have if it were.

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It is illegal to be intoxicated in a pub.  While this one may seem counter-intuitive, like all laws, it’s in place to keep everyone safe. And of course, moderation is key to genuine appreciation of whatever you’re partial to.

Today of course, Scotland is able to freely produce our national drink and ship it not just to the USA but all over the world. In fact the Scotch whisky industry has a lot to thank the Prohibition era for, as it opened up new markets and new appreciation for the golden nectar on a global scale. Slainte mhath!


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