In the second decade of the Twentieth Century, America experienced a wave of anti-alcohol sentiment. The temperance movement, led at its most radical edges by Garrard County, KY native Carrie Nation, posited the abolition of sales of alcoholic beverages as the key to the nation's health and moral soundness. The ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment and the subsequent passing of the Volstead Act outlawed the sale and manufacturing of alcoholic beverages in the United States, beginning in 1920.
Ultimately, neither the public safety nor the nation's economy profited from the Prohibition experiment. The production and procurement of alcoholic beverages was driven underground, resulting in a surge of organized crime activities. Prohibition grew increasingly less popular and by the onset of the Great Depression, it was evident that the legalization of alcoholic beverages would result in increased tax revenue for the nation.
When the aristocratic lawyer and sitting Governor of New York, Franklin Delano Roosevelt promised sweeping change for the nation, including economic stimulus through the reform of bootlegging operations. Roosevelt handily defeated incumbent Herbert Hoover in the 1932 Presidential election. By February 1933, the Twenty-First Amendment, which would repeal the Eighteenth Amendment, was introduced in Congress, and in March of that year, President Roosevelt signed into law the Cullen-Harrison Act, which allowed the sale of low-alcohol spirits. The 21st Amendment was adopted on December 5, 1933 (widely celebrated as Repeal Day).
Here in Kentucky, Prohibition's impact was particularly harsh. As bourbon historian Rick Bell brilliantly relays during the Evan Williams Speakeasy Tour, the Volstead Act brought dark days to Kentucky. Kentucky's famous bourbon industry was hit hard by Prohibition. The shuttered distilleries (which, by 1929, could produce small amounts of whiskey for medicinal purposes) led to scores of unemployed workers, many of whom had no additional job skills. A young whiskey salesman for the Stitzler-Weller distillery, Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle, found himself bereft of income or skills. In But Always Fine Bourbon: Pappy Van Winkle and the Story of Old Fitzgerald, Sally Van Winkle (Pappy's granddaughter), remembers the words of her own father, Julian Jr.:
I doubt there are too many around today who could imagine what it was like when Prohibition came. It meant that one of the nation's biggest industries was shut down tight. I was just a boy but I could remember all those men who had been in business for decades sitting in front of their rolled-top desks with their green eyeshades. They just rolled down their desktops, walked out, and locked the door on January 1, 1920.
Fortunately, eighty-one years later, Kentucky bourbon whiskey is stronger than ever. New labels are being introduced at a rapid pace and bourbon tourism is a major source of revenue for the Bluegrass State.
There are many ways you can celebrate Repeal Day today. If you'll be in Louisville tonight, check out the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience's Repeal Day Celebration (Period dress is encouraged, but not required!) from 5-9 p.m.
Maker's Mark has repealed shipping fees all day, so you'll get a break on ordering some of your holiday goodies, or perhaps a treat for yourself.
Or, you can pour yourself a bourbon cocktail (I'll have an old-fashioned, please!) and celebrate 81 years of freedom to (legally) imbibe!