The Ghost of Prohibition: The Noble Experiment Turns 100

In an 1840 speech to the Illinois House of Representatives, of which he was then a congressman, Abraham Lincoln argued, “Prohibition will work great injury to the cause of temperance. It is a species of intemperance within itself, for it goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man's appetite by legislation, and makes a crime out of things that are not crimes. A Prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded.” Though here only considered at the state level, Lincoln decried the notion of Prohibition as fundamentally un-American, an affront to personal liberty, and ultimately doomed for failure. Of course, after 80 years he was proved correct on his final point. But despite the 18th Amendment’s catastrophic backlash, the debate over the philosophical merits of Prohibition and temperance remains a constant throughout American history, and one still unanswered.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Prohibition—one of the most enigmatic phenomena this country has ever witnessed. However, temperance, the notion of limiting or abstaining from alcohol for societal good, is much older and was considered as early as the colonial period. Several successful efforts to forbid alcohol at the state or local level can be noted throughout the 19th century. Maine passed an 1851 law banning recreational drinking, while Kansas prohibited alcohol through its state constitution in 1881. The absolute abolition of alcohol on a national scale, however, required an unlikely perfect storm of social factors.

Temperance long held close ties with the women’s suffrage movement, and leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton both advocated for that cause. Drunkenness and debaucherous saloon culture, where alcohol might be accompanied by gambling or prostitution, were widely accepted as male issues, and women often suffered direct and serious consequences. Carry Nation, a victim of domestic violence at the hands of an alcoholic husband, found celebrity in her hatchet-wielding attacks on barrooms across the country. Organizations—such as the influential Women’s Christian Temperance Union, formed in 1874 (two decades before the Anti-Saloon League, which would become the most powerful Prohibition lobbyist)—fought simultaneously for teetotalism and women’s suffrage. The 18th Amendment was ultimately ratified only eight months before the 19th gave women the right to vote.

Prohibitionists found more surprising champions in captains of industry, such as Henry Ford, who hoped such measures would improve productivity of his labor force. Already on the brink of Prohibition, the United States’ entrance into World War I in April 1917 gave the movement its final push, Congress voting on the first draft of the 18th Amendment only a few months later. Soldiers were forbidden from consuming alcohol, and the war reenergized a spirit of moralistic American “patriotism” complemented with a heightened anti-immigrant, anti-German sentiment, for which the brewing industry, and by association all alcohol, became a symbol and a target.

On January 6, 1918, Mississippi was the first state to approve the 18th Amendment, prohibiting the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” By January 1919, the ratification process was complete, allowing Prohibition to take effect one year later, on January 17, 1920. Congress subsequently passed the Volstead Act, providing the means to enforce Prohibition and regulate any production of alcohol for non-consumption purposes.

Even more swift was ratifying the 21st Amendment, which overturned the 18th in 1933. William Rorabaugh, Professor of History at the University of Washington, explains, “Prohibition was seen by progressives as a way to end crime, end poverty, end child abuse, end wife beating, and all of the social ills of society . . . would be wiped out if only you could have a constitutional amendment to ban the legal sale of alcohol.” After 13 years, it was clear that Prohibition accomplished none of these things. For some of these goals, conditions were tangibly worse. Underground crime achieved new levels of organization, coinciding with government and police corruption. And most obviously problematic, Prohibition didn’t keep people from drinking. On top of these failings, the largest financial tragedy ever experienced on American soil spurred Prohibition’s end. “Alcohol used to provide one of the biggest sources of revenue for government,” explains Mark Thornton, an economist and Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute. “When you prohibited alcohol, all of those revenue sources dried up.” Before 1913 (at which time a federal income tax was adopted), approximately one-third of federal revenue derived from liquor taxes. Four years into the Great Depression, the government needed money—and the “Noble Experiment” was dead.

Although Prohibition lasted just under 14 years, its ghost still haunts most every sector of the American alcohol industry. What people choose to drink, how wine makes its way from the cellar to the glass, when a consumer might be able to access a liquor store—all of these facets of American alcohol culture remain affected, damaged even, in Prohibition’s wake. And as the industry and government work to repair what’s broken, signs of neo-temperance fuel a new set of moral crusades—ones whose repercussions can already be measured both in the alcohol space and far beyond.

The Grape Rush

Americans hardly stopped drinking in the 1920s. Although born from necessity, what they drank during those years reset the national palate for beer, wine, and spirits in ways that still impact production and consumption patterns. In a recent article for The Wall Street Journal, University of Toledo Professor Neil Reid argues that Americans still haven’t regained a taste for good beer—or at least Old World styles—after Prohibition instilled greater familiarity with diluted homebrews and sugary soft drinks. He writes, “Thirteen years without access, or only limited access, to high-quality beer meant many American beer drinkers didn’t find interesting or challenging beers palatable anymore.” Available spirits were of similarly poor quality, mandating sweeter mixers to mask their flaws and giving rise to the new concept of a “cocktail party.”

Neither were Prohibition-era wines lauded for their complexity, yet of the three, the wine industry arguably fared best under the 18th Amendment. In contrast to beer, for which consumption dropped 70% during Prohibition, wine consumption rose 65% over that period. This staggering figure was made possible by way of a vaguely worded clause in the Volstead Act that allowed for “a person manufacturing nonintoxicating cider and fruit juices exclusively for use in his home.” The notion that cider and wine (as “fruit juices” came to be understood) were “nonintoxicating” is, of course, laughable. But such interpretation kept vines in the ground and opened the floodgates for home winemaking—each household was allotted a generous 200 gallons per year. Not only did this grow America’s appetite for wine, it allowed for the planting of what have become some of the country’s greatest viticultural treasures: its old vineyards, now nearing their centenaries as well, and rooted to heritage varieties such as Zinfandel, Carignan, and Alicante Bouschet.

The grapegrowing statistics from the 1920s are astonishing. In the 1910s, a ton of California wine grapes cost between $9.50 and $30. In 1924, prices reached as high as $375. Vineyard land that cost $100 an acre in 1919 cost more than $500 in 1920, and the Golden State’s vineyard area nearly doubled from 300,000 acres in 1920 to 577,000 in 1927. The rest of the country, similarly, experienced expansion; half a million tons of grapes were harvested outside of California in 1925—twice the amount collected in 1920. In 1927, 72,000 carloads of California grapes hit the railroads, reaching distribution centers in cities such as Chicago, Newark, and Boston. Much of this was Alicante Bouschet, a variety that exploded during Prohibition. While its wines were considered, then, of lackluster quality, Alicante Bouschet is a vigorous cultivar that consistently provided a bountiful crop and one that traveled well. Of greater distinction, it is also a teinturier, meaning both its skin and flesh are pigmented. This rare condition resulted in particularly deep, potent libations for the home winemaker to enjoy. Home winemaking was widely accomplished through fresh berries, but alternative products helped facilitate the process, especially when grapes were out of season. Wine bricks, such as those produced by Beringer, were composed of concentrated grape juice and packaged with explicit instructions on how not to dissolve them in water and ferment them into wine. Grape juice—like the popular Vine-Glo, which came in such labels as port, burgundy, sauterne, tokay, and Virginia Dare (made from Scuppernong)—came with similar anti-recipes.

Opportunity abounded for the grower during Prohibition, but the era proved more challenging for the producer. In 1922, the United States counted 917 licensed wineries, a number that fell to 268 by the time of repeal. Among the wineries that were able to survive the 1920s were names, some already well established before Prohibition, that include those who went on to become the most influential producers through the rest of the century. Several legal pathways allowed producers to continue making wine throughout Prohibition. Wine could be prescribed for medicinal purposes, utilized for flavoring food products (such as California Sherry in Campbell’s Soup) or curing tobacco, distilled into spirits for various purposes (such as fortifying other legal wines), and converted into vinegar. Perhaps the best-known loophole was the production of sacramental wine for both Christian and Jewish institutions. Georges de Latour famously kept Beaulieu Vineyards in the Napa Valley afloat this way. By the mid 1920s, Beaulieu Vineyards held 900,000 gallons of sacramental wine in storage and a vast network of clients from coast to coast. By Prohibition’s end, de Latour had expanded his product range and constructed a luxurious guest house adjacent to the family home for visiting priests or other members of the Catholic church who wished to see the property—a marketing ploy that would foreshadow Napa’s pivotal role in advancing wine tourism later in the 20th century. Wente, in Livermore, kept its vineyards—largely planted to white grapes, such as Chardonnay and Sémillon—intact by selling to BV. Today, approximately 80% of California Chardonnay is comprised of Wente clones. Wente’s neighbor Concannon, responsible for Clones 7, 8, and 11 of Cabernet Sauvignon, instead branded its own sacramental wines.

If the winners write history, then those wineries able to cling onto their bonded status through Prohibition certainly inked their names in the textbooks. Yet perhaps Prohibition’s biggest wine success story wasn’t of a winery that persevered, but rather one that was born outright. In the early 1920s, Joseph Gallo, Sr., purchased a farm outside of Modesto. He planted half of his 20 acres to Alicante Bouschet, beginning his grapegrowing business with those clusters. Though Gallo would shoot both his wife and himself in a murder-suicide a few months before repeal, his sons Ernest and Julio would apply for a winery license in 1933. That winery, E & J Gallo, is now the world’s largest.

Blank Slate

The repeal of Prohibition in 1933 not only marked a rebuilding period for the production of alcohol, it also provided the United States with a blank slate for the larger institutional structure of the alcohol industry, from how it’s sold to how it’s regulated and legislated. Author, attorney, and Director of the Wine Law and Policy Program at the UC Berkeley School of Law Richard Mendelson explains, “We had the opportunity to pass a federal law that would have created a level playing field for the whole country and a set of standards.” But one major problem prevented such a simple solution, he notes. “At the end of Prohibition, there were still states that wanted to be dry.” Mississippi, for example, continued statewide prohibition of alcohol through 1966. What was left in the aftermath of repeal was a convoluted interplay between local, state, and federal regulation, providing for one of the most complex and often counterintuitive legal frameworks worldwide for the alcohol industry.

People often refer to the United States as not truly a single alcohol market, but 50 separate markets. That figure, too, is an underestimate. In addition to certain states hanging onto Prohibition after the enactment of the 21st Amendment, smaller jurisdictions in certain wet states may still opt to ban alcohol. Moore County, Tennessee, which houses Jack Daniel’s, remains ironically dry (a tour there ends with lemonade, not whiskey). Such exceptions exist through local option, which allows for the regulation of alcohol sales at the county or municipality level. The system was also widely used in the 19th century, providing local areas an avenue to outlaw alcohol long before national Prohibition was considered. Not every state maintains local option, however. California, for example, effectively excludes the practice in its constitution.

While all of this makes the alcohol landscape nearly impossible to navigate, the original intent was to allow Americans to choose their drinking environments for themselves—a mindset not entirely erased. “It’s such a hot issue that politicians don’t like to deal with it,” says Mendelson on alcohol, explaining that legislators will typically push any resolution to lower levels of government. “The ultimate last level is [to allow] voters to decide—and that’s what local option is.” This may imply a certain amount of freedom, but Mendelson also points to the burden of voting each cycle on personal alcohol rights, and the stigmatization it perpetuates. “It keeps it as a political issue in your mind,” he says. “After 200 years, you think we’d have it together on what the rules are for drinking.”

At the state level, two distinct models for the sale and distribution of alcohol emerged upon repeal: control and license states. Control states operate as a government monopoly, where the state itself serves as either the distributor or retailer of alcoholic beverages. This structure can be observed elsewhere around the world, such as in Scandinavia or in Canada, where each province or territory features its own monopoly. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the 15 states that opted for a control system upon repeal sit along the Canadian border. Today, 17 states (as well as Montgomery County, Maryland) participate in some variation of a control system, however, they by now have all adopted more of a hybrid approach. For example, one state might only monopolize the sale and distribution of higher proof beverages, while others may institute state liquor stores but allow for privatized distribution.

License states allow for privatization at all sectors but exist under a three-tier system. The model divides the alcohol industry into supplier, distributor, and retailer sectors; a product travels through each before reaching the consumer. Additionally, entities in one tier cannot have financial stakes in another. This relates to tied-house laws, wherein a bar or restaurant (which would qualify as a retailer) cannot be owned by or have exclusive contract with a supplier. Such tied-house establishments were commonplace pre-Prohibition, and their abolishment was intended to squander vertical integration. Upon its conception, the three-tier system was also designed to create a bottleneck at the distributor level. Whereas suppliers and retailers may be numerous, the distributor level is much smaller, allowing for more efficient taxation and regulation from the state. This has resulted in new problems in recent years, as distributors dwindle in number but expand in power through consolidation. According to Wines & Vines, in 1995, the United States boasted 1,800 wineries and 3,000 distributors. That ratio has inverted; by 2017, there were 9,200 wineries compared to 1,200 distributors. Among distributors, a few giants dominate the industry—a point emblematized by the merger of Southern Wine and Spirits and Glazer’s in 2016. In addition to the challenges this creates for smaller distributors, the dominance of big players can spell trouble for small producers who simply cannot put forth the supply required for these larger portfolios. Exactly how much more consolidation can occur remains to be seen, especially in light of the Federal Trade Commission blocking the merger of Republic National Distributing Company and Breakthru Beverage Group, two large distributors, last summer.

The Supreme Court continues to debate the constitutionality of aspects of the three-tier system, particularly in relation to the Commerce Clause. In the 2019 case Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association v. Russell F. Thomas, the Court ruled against a state requirement whereby licenses to sell alcohol were only granted after two years of established residency for a given retailer. In a landmark 2005 decision, Granholm v. Heald, the Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional to forbid direct shipment from out-of-state wineries to consumers if permitted for in-state wineries. The ruling reshaped the way wineries could sell to consumers nationally, with strategies such as wine clubs and internet sales becoming more viable—but the applications for out-of-state retailers remain uncertain.

While the Supreme Court continues, 87 years later, to untangle the mess of interstate commerce as it applies to alcohol, each state can dictate the terms of alcohol sales within its bounds. Several still enforce so-called blue laws, which restrict certain activities (such as alcohol purchases) to specific hours on “moral” grounds. The most common is the limited or prohibited sale of alcohol on Sundays. In Georgia, for example, you can’t order a drink until 12:30 pm on a Sunday. But laws on the micro-level get quirkier. Up until 2013 in Kentucky, alcohol sales were forbidden on election day. The fear was that politicians could bribe you with a pint and get you to drunkenly vote for them. In Maine, you can’t buy alcohol on a Sunday until 9 am . . . unless, as of 2013, St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Sunday, in which case you can knock one back starting at 6 am. So many of these laws are, in one way or another, vestiges of Prohibition. For Mendelson, when he’s asked to litigate any of these relics, he’ll begin with a simple request: “Explain the law that you are enforcing.” Typically, those tasked with enforcing the law won’t know the origins and can provide little defense. “When you’re challenging a law, you’re getting down to constitutional issues. Is this a justified law?” he asserts.

A Flawed System?

While the aftershock of Prohibition continues to inform what Americans drink and how the industry is regulated, perhaps the most dynamic and timely ramifications have little to do with alcohol. When it comes to several other substances, prohibition remains rule, and with cannabis, that system is beginning to disintegrate once more. The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 came at the heels of Prohibition’s repeal and represented the earliest efforts to curb cannabis use in the United States. Its passage remains something of a legal anomaly. At the time, recreational use of marijuana was minimal, and many have interpreted the act as discriminatory against Mexican immigrants, who would have been most familiar with the plant. Outright prohibition of marijuana wouldn’t take hold on a national level until 1970, with Nixon’s Controlled Substances Act, the foundational legislation for his War on Drugs.

Narcotics prohibition in America, by contrast, predates that of alcohol, though its enactment was intertwined with the national temperance movement. While opium and coca leaves share histories of medicinal use in Asia and South America, their pharmaceutical adoption in the United States transformed treatment practices immeasurably over the course of the 19th century. During the Civil War, over 10 million opium pills were consumed by Union soldiers—an early catalyst for narcotics addiction, only further exacerbated due to concurrent stigmatization and undersupply of alcohol. The American Medical Association and American Pharmacists Association, founded in 1847 and 1852, respectively, called for the regulation and prohibition of narcotics (as well as alcohol prohibition), not only due to their increasing abuse, but also purportedly to counteract the augmenting power of the patent-drug industry. In the western US, individual states enacted bans on the smoking of opiates. As with alcohol and marijuana, these laws had racist implications—largely viewed as a move against Chinese laborers installing railways, some of whom used recreational opium. The passage of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act in 1914, six years before the 18th Amendment took effect, presented the first legislation to regulate drug use in the United States at a federal level and remains in the books today.

Several of the same criticisms lobbied against the 18th Amendment have been harnessed in the effort to legalize marijuana, and potentially other substances. If the Prohibition era gave birth to the American mafia, repeal did not signal its death. Instead, those same criminal institutions restructured around other illegal, and potentially more harmful, substances. Bootleggers made way for drug dealers—and similar questions remained as to the efficacy of prohibition. “It’s an inherently flawed system,” argues Thornton, regardless what is being prohibited. He, instead, favors what Portugal has done: decriminalizing all substances, and regulating the use of safer, commercially produced drugs under the supervision of medical professionals and social workers. “It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s one that would save lives.” Rorabaugh, however, cautions that some of these substances can still be profoundly dangerous, alcohol included, and others argue that the health risks of cannabis are understated. Rorabaugh cites that a primary reason for alcohol Prohibition’s failure was deeply embedded wine and beer cultures, dating back to colonial America. “It’s hard to argue that there’s a cultural tradition of using crack cocaine,” he counters.

Currently, 11 states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana. Since it is still illegal nationally by way of the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, there is debate as to why the federal government hasn’t taken further measures to intervene. Thornton looks to the economic implications as a persuasive answer. “The costs of cannabis prohibition in taxes, deaths, imprisonments, crime, corruption—the list can go on and on—are incalculable but are certainly on par with any war in American history,” he says. As was the case with alcohol during the height of the Great Depression, keeping marijuana illegal is money lost for the government.

But beyond arguments for or against legalization, the repeal of marijuana prohibition does present the opportunity for that blossoming industry to learn from the mistakes the alcohol industry made in 1933. The proposed Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act would do just as it implies—place marijuana under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and implement a three-tier system analogous to the distribution channels prescribed to alcohol. The name is catchy, providing reassurance for safety by drawing comparison to a less-maligned product. But as a business decision, the effects of a three-tier model for cannabis could be just as devastating as they have been for alcohol. “You really want to regulate cannabis like wine? Is that the right model? Yes, it may have voters feeling more comfortable . . . but that’s not necessarily the best way,” suggests Mendelssohn.

From Ohio State’s Michael E. Moritz College of Law student paper series, Jonathan Elsner warns, “The Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA) have thrown their support behind legalization efforts, likely seeing the opportunity to monopolize the adult use cannabis industry as they have the alcohol industry.” Put simply, a three-tier system for marijuana has already signaled similar consolidation in the distribution tier to what is observed in the alcohol industry. It also leaves room for potential manufacturing mega-corporations (Elsner points to Coca Cola’s displays of interest in marijuana), allowing a few dominant players outsized control. Many more of the same questions that were asked during alcohol’s repeal remain relevant to marijuana. “Do you set the taxes high? Do you set the taxes low?” Mendelson puts forth as one example. Alcohol initially opted for the former as a necessary payoff for legalization, as has been the case with cannabis in California. The challenge here, as it was with alcohol, is that high taxation serves as a deterrent for the extant illegal drug trade to apply for legal licenses. In 2018, California collected $345 million in taxes from the cannabis industry, just over half of what former Governor Jerry Brown projected upon legalization, largely a result of the robust black market. With the turbulent state of legalization efforts, there’s still time for course correction, and these state-by-state trials might provide useful case studies should cannabis or other substances be permitted nationwide.

Sober Curiosity

Upon its end, the Roaring Twenties swiftly established a firm stronghold on American nostalgia. Maybe it was its abrupt and, well, sobering conclusion that doused its historical memory with an intoxicating allure. Historian Henry F. May wrote in 1956 for The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, “With the depression, the twenties shot into the past with extraordinary suddenness. The conflicting pictures of the decade, rosy and deep black, changed sharply, though none disappeared. Of them all, it was the New Era point of view, the interpretation of the decade as the birth of a new and humane capitalism, that understandably suffered most.” While it’s easy to point to the 1920s as the beginnings of modernity—the first chapter for a nascent new order spawned from the ashes of World War I—the subsequent years proved it to be a brief but brilliant flash of life before the world descended into economic turmoil and unprecedented bloodshed once more.

The contemporary fantasy of the Jazz Age will assuredly only amplify as we experience a new set of ’20s. Yet today’s 1920s revivalism fabricates several puzzling analogues. Moonshine—the typically corn-based white spirit popularized in the hills of Appalachia by illicit home distillers during Prohibition—has been co-opted by the craft movement, fully regulated, commonly sold in Mason jars, and coming in a host of flavors. Al Capone, a legitimately bad person, is now a party theme. By 2070, will Pablo Escobar soirées be a thing too? The headline to Esther Mobley’s 2017 San Francisco Chronicle article speaks to this: “Please stop calling your legal, open-to-the-public bar a ‘speakeasy.’” After chastising these establishments’ Instagram accounts and the fact that they issue press releases, she goes on, “As a modern buzzword in San Francisco, ‘speakeasy’ is voyeurism, channeling the thrill of that danger without having to encounter it.” In short, when you have a 0% chance of experiencing Bureau raid but do have a reservation on OpenTable, why should you need a password to get into an entirely legal, heavily marketed bar?

What unifies all of these fads is alcohol, but like the 1920s, this new decade also promises to be one of drinking paradox. Last month’s Silicon Valley Bank State of the Wine Industry Report showed that American consumption of wine decreased in 2019 for the first time in 25 years (total sales by dollar still increased 1.1%, and for alcohol generally, 2.5%). While the decline can be partially attributed to other alcoholic substitutions such as White Claw, analysts project that millennial sobriety also contributes—a trend that seems to be swelling domestically and abroad. The Dry January movement soared globally in 2020. In the UK, supermarket sales of low-alcohol and alcohol-free beer jumped 37% last month, while alcohol purchases dropped 20%. Last year, Seedlip, which bills itself as “the world's first non-alcoholic spirit,” reported 270% year-over-year volume growth before being purchased by Diageo.

In a 2019 New York Times article, Alex Williams breaks down the “new generation of kinda-sorta temporary temperance crusaders, whose attitudes toward the hooch is somewhere between Carrie Nation’s and Carrie Bradshaw.” In addition to trendy mocktail bars (apparently there’s even an alcohol-free “speakeasy” in Brooklyn!), and the booze-like alternatives such as Kin Euphorics—which promises a buzz, but no hangover—Williams looks to the politics of sobriety. He quotes Kin founder Jen Batchelor, “At the end of the day, alcohol is a civil rights issue—alcohol is a women’s lib issue, an LGBTTQQIAAP issue, a race issue, the list goes on.” It’s difficult to ignore the parallels to the temperance and women’s suffrage movements that brought about the 18th and 19th Amendments a century ago.

One argument Mendelson, Thornton, and Rorabaugh all emphasize in both interview and their writings is that America remains in an endless oscillation toward and against prohibitionist tendencies. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Puritans believed drunkenness to be a sin, although legislative efforts to curb the enjoyment of alcohol in their utopian “city upon a hill” proved futile. Meanwhile, down south in Jamestown, Virginia, settlers were required to plant a minimum 10 vines per household. As Mendelson writes in his book, “Wine has been alternatively the demon and the darling of American society since colonial times. Any thought that this duality no longer exists is misguided. Prohibitionist sentiment has not disappeared in America, nor will it anytime soon.” Rorabaugh echoes, “Rising and falling patterns of alcohol consumption have been a recurrent feature throughout American history. When alcohol use is low, society shows little interest, which leads to higher use and greater abuse.”

The tension between temperance and indulgence underlies the entirety of American history. The periods are long between one side teetering to power and tottering to lose it. Following the repeal of Prohibition, the alcohol industry swiftly proved capable of satiating American palates, before sales skyrocketed upon the country’s entrance into World War II. The 1960s brought another two decades that observed Americans drinking more and more practically each year. By 1980, the younger baby boomers began to push back. Enraptured by a new fitness revolution of gyms, personal trainers, and Jane Fonda on VHS, alcohol became the antagonist to good health. It also proved an issue of public safety, as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, formed in 1980, argued. Statistics on alcohol use confirm these cultural trends. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, per capita consumption in the United States saw a sharp increase after the events of Pearl Harbor, then began another steady climb in the 1960s. Peak drinking was reached in 1980 and 1981, after which it dropped off roughly 21% until 1995, when the trajectory reversed.

So where in this ceaseless cycle do we stand today? Mendelson argues that the liberal era hasn’t yet crested. Rorabaugh concurs, reminding that there are nearly 3,000,000 veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq living in America today, and historically, warfare has amplified consumption rather than inhibiting it. He posits that any anti-alcohol sentiment in recent years is only in its nascent stages. That spells a pretty bleak future for alcohol in America in the forthcoming decades. But exactly how the inevitable trough will play out—whether the largest repercussions will be legal, economic, or social, or if alcohol will even be the primary target—remains challenging to predict. Mendelson sums up, “History doesn’t necessarily repeat itself. But the tendencies, that puritanism, that puritanical point-of-view is still there.”

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