Repeal Day: The Scofflaw

Photo courtesy of ReeseCLloyd (Flickr), some rights reserved

Today is the eightieth anniversary of a magical day that many Americans thought would never come. The anniversary of the passing of the Twenty-first Amendment to the American Constitution. And what did the Twenty-first Amendment to the American constitution achieve? The revocation of the Eighteenth Amendment to the American Constitution. And what was the Eighteenth Amendment to the American Constitution? The worst amendment of all:

“the prohibition of the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all the territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes.”

The Prohibition era was a contentious period in American history. Although driven by an almost untouchable combination of patriotism, medical evidence, religious fervour and social hysteria, American’s experiment with prohibition was, by 1925 widely perceived to have failed. The temperance movement had hoped for a reduction or elimination of a range of social problems – drunkenness, crime, mental illness and poverty, but instead:

“Five years of Prohibition [have] had, at least, this one benign effect: they have completely disposed of all the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists. None of the great boons and usufructs that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment has come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic, but more. There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.” – HL Mencken

Ultimately the failure of Prohibition was due to the determination of the populace to continue to produce and drink alcohol. In particular, bootlegging and organised crime flourished and the underground drinking dens, the speakeasies, the blind pigs and the blind tigers rose to a level of popularity that would not be matched for another seventy-five years. Ultimately, irony of irony, many of those who supported the repeal movement began to argue that prohibition had exacerbated the problems it had set out to eradicate – largely due to the popularity and allure of speakeasy culture.

The repeal movement had permeated the American consciousness to such an extent that in 1932 Franklin D Roosevelt ran for election on a promise that he would repeal the federal Prohibition law, and in March 1933 he proved true to his word.  Finally, thanks to the Cullen-Harrison Act, Americans were free to purchase wine and weak beer (no Budweiser jokes here, please) after a thirteen year wait.  What a summer it must have been.  By 5 December 1933 the Amendment had been fully ratified and the federal laws enforcing Prohibition were repealed.

Between 1920 and 1933, however, Prohibition had had a noticeable effect on the drinkers of Europe.  Faced with the Prohibition of their profession back home, many American bartenders fled to London and Paris and set up local bars offering American cocktails to the bemused Europeans.  Of these, the most famous examples include Harry’s Bar, Paris and The American Bar at The Savoy.  In keeping with the name that had been coined (in 1924) to refer to those who continued to drink illegally in America, the new ex-pats were also called scofflaws.

So as a result, we Brits have plenty to thank these Americans for – and can look back wryly on the clearly wrong-headed idea of banning alcohol in the first place.  For them, today seems a fitting day to raise a toast to these pioneers, and what better drink to choose than the Scofflaw – a drink created by a scofflaw at Harry’s Bar, Paris, to celebrate his escape from the parched lands of America:

  1. Combine one and a half measures of rye whiskey, half a measure of dry vermouth, a measure of lemon juice and half a measure of grenadine to a shaker of ice.
  2. Shake well and double strain into a chilled coupe glass.
  3. Garnish with a twist of lemon.
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