The Sumerians (the ancient inhabitants of Mesopotamia) are said to have discovered the beer fermentation process quite by chance. They must have liked it: They had a goddess of brewing, Ninkasi, and a hymn to her, which was the beer-making recipe put to music. Their successors, the Babylonians, knew how to brew 20 different types of beer. The recipes were recorded by scribes as early as 6,000 B.C. The ancient Egyptians made note of Ramses III, the pharaoh whose annual sacriﬁce of about 30,000 gallons of beer appeased ‘‘thirsty gods.’’
The modern term bridal joins the words bride and ale; a bride’s ale was brewed by a young woman’s family in preparation for wedding festivities.
The signiﬁcance of beer in the average person’s diet was demonstrated at the landing of the Mayﬂower at Plymouth, in what is now Massachusetts. The Pilgrims were headed for Virginia, but the ship was running out of beer. So they halted, went ashore and drank water that the seamen might have more beer.
Beer production and sales played colourful parts in U.S. history. The ﬁrst American brewery was opened in Lower Manhattan by the Dutch West Indies Company in 1632. The crude streets of New Amsterdam (today’s New York City) were ﬁrst paved to help the horse-drawn beer wagons make better progress, which were so often stuck in the mud!
Alcoholic beverages, often in combination with herbs, were considered the only liquids ﬁt to drink, with good reason. Household water was commonly polluted. Milk could cause milk sickness (tuberculosis). But beer, ale, and wine were disease-free, tasty, and thirst-quenching, crucial qualities in societies that preserved food with salt and washed it down with a diet of starches.
In England the public house, or pub, developed during Saxon times as a place where people gathered for fellowship and pleasure. An evergreen bush on a pole outside meant ale was served. Each pub was identiﬁed by a sign with a picture of, for example, a Black Horse, White Swan, or Red Lion. These early ‘‘logos’’ were used because most people could not read.
When Europeans migrated to America, they brought the tavern with them. It was considered essential to a town’s welfare to have a place providing drink, lodging, and food.
In Massachusetts in the 1650s, any town without a tavern was ﬁned! Often the tavern was built near the church so that parishioners could warm up quickly after Sunday services held in unheated meetinghouses. A new town sometimes built its tavern before its church. As towns grew into cities and roads were built connecting them, taverns followed the roads.
It was also in the taverns that the spirit of revolution was born. These were the rendezvous spots for rebels, where groups like ‘the Sons of Liberty’ were formed and held their meetings. The Boston Tea Party was planned in Hancock Tavern, while in the Green Dragon, Paul Revere and 30 companions formed a committee to watch the troop movement of British soldiers.
When Americans pushed westward taverns sprang up along the routes west. As towns appeared the tavern was often the ﬁrst building. Homes and merchants grew up around it. Drinking places without lodging started to appear. These kept the name tavern, while more elaborate inns adopted the term hotel. But the hotel kept its barroom; it was often a showplace, with a handsome mahogany bar and a well dressed bartender.
Prohibition was the best thing that could happen to the Scotch whisky industry and they were quick to capitalize on it. Prohibition in the United States was a national ban on the sale, production, and transportation of alcohol imposed on January 16, 1920, and repealed on December 5, 1933. One anomaly of the “Prohibition Act” (Volstead Act) was that it did not actually prohibit the consumption of alcohol; consumers quickly stockpiled liquor for their own use in late 1919, before sales of alcohol became illegal the following January.
The production of alcohol, although not necessarily its consumption, remained legal in neighboring countries. Canada imposed prohibition nationally from 1918 to 1920. Canadian provinces enacted their own prohibition for varying periods between 1901 to 1948. Distilleries and breweries in Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean flourished as their products were either consumed, were legal by visiting Americans or smuggled into the United States. The Detroit River, part of the border with Canada, was notoriously difficult to police and control, and soon became a bootlegger’s highway. Nassau, in the Bahamas, became a major center for the stockpiling of hard liquor destined for the American market and a staging ground for “rum runners.” When Washington complained to the London that British officials in Nassau were undermining its law, London refused to intervene. The province of Ontario enacted a prohibition on alcohol consumption from 1916 to 1927. The Ontario Temperance Act was the opposite of the Volstead Act. It prohibited the domestic consumption of alcohol, but continued to allow its manufacture and transshipment for export outside the province.
The Volstead Act had broad exemptions for the use of ethanol or grain alcohol for “fuel, dye and other lawful industries and practices, such as religious rituals.” Ten licenses were authorized for the production of “medicinal whiskey”, but only six companies applied for them. All of the companies had been in production prior to Prohibition and had stocks to sell.
The law allowed physicians to “prescribe” up to one pint of whiskey per week to their patients for “medicinal purposes.” The American Medical Association subsequently lobbied the U.S. Congress to remove the limit on the amount of whiskey that could be prescribed on the basis that physicians were “better qualified to determine the therapeutic value of a substance and the proper rate of its prescription.” In addition, there were a variety of liqueurs, especially bitters, which were successfully reclassified as “medicines” and thus exempted from the Volstead Act. The Scotch malt whisky Laphroaig, a heavily peated, smoky, phenolic whisky from the Isle of Islay, a whisky that is often described as being “medicinal” in flavor, successfully had itself reclassified as a “medicine” by the Bureau of Alcohol, Fire Arms and Tobacco. So too did the blended Scotch, White Horse, which prominently features another phenolic, single malt from Islay, Lagavulin. The two Scotches were the only ones that could be legally imported during Prohibition and were available for sale at pharmacies. Their purchase required a prescription from a doctor.
Prohibition had predictable results on the Scotch whisky industry.The copious quantities of home brewed “bathtub gin”notwithstanding, demand for hard liquor remained strong. This demand was met largely by bootleggers, many of whom were part of organized crime rings that flourished during this period. A combination of British and Scottish liquor producers, domestic Canadian spirit producers, and various Caribbean rum producers, largely met the bootleggers demand. The Scotch whisky industry, far larger than their Canadian and Caribbean competitors, and already far more sophisticated in its marketing and distribution than their foreign rivals, was ideally positioned to capitalize on the burgeoning American demand.
Whisky producers stockpiled inventory in locations convenient for smugglers. Whisky exports to the Bahamas, for example, increased from 944 gallons in 1918 to more than 386,000 gallons in 1922, and they continued to increase as Prohibition progressed. Similar Scotch “depots” were established in Havana, the Turks and Caicos Islands, and on Grand Cayman. Comparable warehouses were set up in St. Johns, Newfoundland, and the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Scotch was also shipped to the province of Ontario for transshipment to the United States. The Detroit River was a major thoroughfare for the smuggling of illicit liquor. It was difficult to police despite the number of revenue agents assigned to patrol it. In 1927 for example, records from the Ontario provincial government show that boats carrying a total of 3,388,016 gallons of “hard liquor” had left Windsor, Ontario for Detroit. In that year, US agents were able to seize only a paltry 148,211 gallons—roughly four percent of what was shipped.
The economics of bootlegging were not unlike those of the contemporary drug trade. Smugglers would pick up stock in an offshore “depot” like Nassau and proceed to the mainland where they would wait just outside the US 12-mile territorial limit. As long as they remained outside of US territorial waters they were technically exempt from US jurisdiction. In reality, aggressive Coast Guard patrols often stopped and boarded smugglers and seized their goods as contraband.
Fast motorboats from the mainland would go out to the “mother ship” to pick up cargo and deliver it to shore. Landed on the coast, prices would double again. Delivered to a warehouse in a major city and from there to a local “speakeasy” would see another doubling at each stage. By the time a bottle of Scotch had traveled from Nassau to a “speakeasy” in New York, the price could have increased by a factor of 16 times. If the liquor was diluted the profits were even larger.
Most Scotch whisky exports were in the form of bottled stock. That made it more difficult to tamper with the contents and to adulterate them. The result was that of all of the illicit liquor being smuggled into the United States, Scotch whisky consistently had the higher quality. Exports from Canada and the Caribbean were usually in barrel form and were bottled after arriving in the United States. This made it easier to dilute the contents and the quality of the resulting product suffered accordingly. The Scotch whisky industry was also in an ideal position to increase production to meet the American demand. The superiority of Scotch among the other smuggled hard liquors would serve the industry well when Prohibition was repealed, and led to an immediate increase in the relative market share enjoyed by Scotch whisky in the American market. To this day Scotch whisky has maintained a dominant market position in the United States.