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G is for Gin (AtoZ Challenge – Roaring Twenties)

G

Let’s say you’re a bootlegger during Prohibition. There is this massive demand for alcoholic beverages that nobody can satisfy but you. People that before didn’t care about drinking now drink for the thrill of it, and they don’t much care about the quality of the alcohol as long as it is intoxicating.
Sounds like a businessman’s paradise, uhu?
Oh, but wait. To produce the liquor that will meet that demand, you need work and time. Say, for example, you want to make whiskey. You need to distil grain alcohol, water and juniper berries (which means you need a distillery) and then you need to age it for at least several months, which means you need a cellar and a vast number of casks, and to wait while other sell their stuff.
Sounds like hell.
No, no, no, wait. You don’t want to make whiskey at all. What you want is taking the same ingredients, mix them in a jug, steep them for a while… and you’re done. You can have all the gin you want without any fuss. And not only that. Since a kid would be able to do that, you have a whole network of people who will do it for you.
Ah, now it sounds like paradise again!

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This is what gin was during Prohibition: the paradise of bootleggers. It was cheap, easy and fast to make and anybody could produce it. In fact, a lot of families did, they made their own and some more to sell to bootleggers. It was what was called bathtub gin.
Contrary to common belief, this kind of homemade gin wasn’t mixed in bathtubs. It was actually mixed in jugs, but because it required a big amount of water and alcohol, these jugs were too big to fit under the sink tub, so a bathtub was used instead.

While getting water and fruit juice wasn’t difficult, getting alcohol was a completely different story. If you were lucky, you could get alcohol legally with a prescription. This would be ethylic alcohol, which in moderate amounts is fit for human consumption. But mostly you – and the unfortunate souls who drank your gin – weren’t that lucky. You would most likely get your alcohol from bootleggers, and that not only was illegal but also very dangerous.
Alcohol was still produced in the US during Prohibition for industrial purposes. This alcohol was denaturated (made unfit for consumption) by adding methanol, which is poisonous and may cause blindness and even death if drunk in quantity. Bootleggers would divert denaturated alcohol from industries and with a fast, often not too reliable process made it drinkable again, then sold it.
Very often, this alcohol was still not suited for human consumption, and if fact wood alcohol caused many deaths and illness during Prohibition.

Even when the alcohol used was safe, though bathtub gin tasted horrible, people still wanted to drink it. So bartenders in speakeasies and blind pigs and any other hole that sold alcohol would add tonic water, juices of any kind, bitters, sugar, in fact, anything that could mask the horrid taste. They called these cocktails, like the ones mixed before Prohibition, although they didn’t taste anything like the cocktails of old.


RESOURCES

A Smile and a Gun – Coroner’s cocktails and Yak Yak Bourbon: the Worst Drinks of Prohibition
Distilled History – The Submarin Bar Shooting
NPR Books – Prohibition Life: Politics, Loopholes and Bathtub Gin

Behr, Edward, Prohibition. The Thirteen Years That Changed America. Penguin Group & BBC Enterprises, London, 1997
Okrent, Daniel, Last Call. The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Scribner, New York, 2010


ROARING TWENTIES AtoZ - Gin - This is what gin was during Prohibition: the paradise of bootleggers. It was cheap, easy and fast to make and anybody could produce it.

21 Comments

  • Sue Archer
    Posted April 8, 2015 at 01:30

    Thank you! Now I know where the term “bathtub gin” truly came from. As you know, I’m a bit of a word collector. 🙂

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 8, 2015 at 06:30

      Happy you discovered something new.
      I’m actually surprised to see ho wmany people thought bathtub gin was actually made in a bathtub.

  • Jeri Burns
    Posted April 8, 2015 at 02:55

    As you describe the process of making the drinks and the need to cover up the taste of them – the question presses into me – just why did people risk life and extreme tongue suffering? The desire to drink must have been strong. Me, I’d rather live without it than choke down gross stuff.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 8, 2015 at 06:38

      I think mostly it had to do with social life rather than the drinking itself.

      Young people were all about breaking with the past. Prohibition was seen as clinging to old values, so they broke the law because this way they asserted themselves and the new order they were trying to bring about.
      For a great part of immigrants it was the same: to many, drinking socially was part of their traditional life and so they saw Prohibition as yet another way for the government to try and take away their ideantity from them.
      For working class people of all ethnicity, drinking after a tiring day of work had long been the normal way to relax and socialise with fellow workers, and so they too saw the prohibition of alcohol as a restriction of their freedom and rights.

      It was estimated that a lot more people drank during Prohibition than they cared to before Prohibition. I think the reason is to be found in these social reactions more than in a desire for alcohol.

  • Lanise Brown
    Posted April 8, 2015 at 06:19

    Ah, I thought bathtub gin was actually made in a bathtub, lol. It’s always nice to learn something new. 🙂

  • Tasha
    Posted April 8, 2015 at 09:38

    I love cocktails and I love gin, but I feel like bathtub gin should be given a miss 🙂 My fav gin is Brecon Gin from Wales – they have just started stocking it in our supermarket and it is so very tasty.
    Tasha
    Tasha’s Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 8, 2015 at 19:44

      Bathtub gin does sound horrible. doesn’t it?

  • Anabel Marsh
    Posted April 8, 2015 at 13:02

    Very partial to gin, but I think I would pass on the bathtub version – like everyone else above I didn’t know before exactly what that meant.

  • Sabina
    Posted April 8, 2015 at 14:21

    I’m not a fan of gin, either modern or Prohibition-era. Great post!

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 8, 2015 at 19:45

      I basically don’t drink alcohol, rarely even wine. But learing this things is fun 🙂

  • Tarkabarka
    Posted April 8, 2015 at 14:41

    People will drink anything as long as it gives them a buzz, huh… 😛 Sounds like it tasted awful!

    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
    Multicolored Diary – Epics from A to Z
    MopDog – 26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 8, 2015 at 19:46

      Well, I think that gave more than a buzz 😉

  • Sue Coletta
    Posted April 8, 2015 at 19:17

    I had no idea you could get alcohol via prescription in those days. Gee, I learn something new with every A-Z post.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 8, 2015 at 19:42

      When I first learned it, I found it so weird. But apparently, alcohol was considered a medicine that could cure a few illnesses.

  • Nick Wilford
    Posted April 8, 2015 at 22:52

    A time when you were taking your life in your hands by having a drink. Sounds fun!

  • Barbara In Caneyhead
    Posted April 9, 2015 at 05:13

    You can keep the gin. I’ll drink rum or whiskey if I want a drink.
    My Blog: Life & Faith in Caneyhead
    I’m Ensign B with Tremp’s Troops
    of the A to Z Challenge

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 9, 2015 at 06:27

      I’ll keep the gin and use it to dilute my vernince 😉

  • Katie
    Posted April 9, 2015 at 13:07

    Really interesting post. My mother-in-law’s favorite drink is the gin and tonic. My brother-in-law was just teasing her about it the other day, saying that gin was a pretty low class alcohol! LOL
    Visiting from A to Z…
    TheCyborgMom

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