Edinburgh Whisky Blog Prohibition Tasting Part 1


Over the last couple of years, myself and Tiger have been hosting tastings for student whisky societies. It is always an honour, privilege and pleasure to do these tastings, as once we have a budget in mind we have a lot of freedom in terms of what bottles we buy, as we tend to find members of student whisky societies are enthusiastic, open minded and have enough knowledge about the topic to be able to deal with the weird and wonderful whiskies we throw at them.

So far, we have held closed distillery tastings, time travelling tastings (1960′s, 70′s, 80′s, 90′s & 00′s), specific vintage tastings and our most recent tasting; a prohibition tasting. Prohibition is one of the most interesting points in recent alcohol history, and it made sense to do a themed tasting on the topic, with each dram being related to prohibition in some way. The tasting I will describe was held for the Edinburgh Uni Water of Life Society, although we also held this tasting for the Heriot Watt Whisky Society.

The specific prohibition we referred to, for most of the tasting, was prohibition in the United States, as this is the most famous prohibition (many countries worldwide have flirted with the idea of temperance, but the US is the most well known) . Enacted in 1920, American Prohibition was the final act in over 150 years of discussion, protest and argument over the best way to deal with the American public’s alcohol consumption.

In the 1840′s, 50′s and 60′s, when the first temperance movements really began, alcohol was intertwined with American society. Your church encouraged you to drink, your employer encouraged you to drink (grog time twice a day in some heavy labour and farm jobs), your politicians past and present, would have made their money through alcohol; Washington had founded one of the biggest distilleries in the country in the late 1700′s. Lincoln had sold casks of whisky, many local politicians owned bars, and much of the government’s budget was funded by alcohol tax. Doctors would have prescribed alcohol for your cough, cold or poor mood. Most city life, which was becoming increasingly where people lived, centred around the saloon. You could cash cheques there, get mail sent there if you didn’t have a permanent residence, speak to your politician there (as they either owned or drank in there), learn English there, gain employment there, and escape the harsh reality of 19th century America there. And that is a key point. It was a hard time if you had just emigrated to the US. Work was backbreaking for the working poor. There was a country to be built. They drank to escape.

Bearing in mind, when the first settlers came over, they would have had barrels of beer in the holds of their ships (most likely pine beer, as the alcohol and hops act as a preservative, and the pine fights scurvy, as discussed with Gent James here), America’s first alcohol love affair was beer. It was only as distilleries started to be established (Jack Daniels 1870′s, Jim Beam 1795 in one shape or form, Washington in the late 1700′s), that Americans started to move to harder liquor. With the saloon culture increasing in the mid 18th century, as towns grew in to cities, and consumption grew, and the availability of hard liquor grew, America started to have a real problem. An average of 88 bottles of whisky a year per male kind of problem.

I’ll leave it there just now. In the next post, I’ll talk about Winston Churchill’s mum, gangsters, women’s rights, Canadian whiskey and more.

Just to point out, much of my research was taken from Ken Burn’s fantastic prohibition documentary, amongst other sources. If you get a chance, check it out. It’s brilliant.

Chris Hoban


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