Watered-down whiskey and the American palate
Alongside all the social ills Prohibition brought about was an unintended side effect: the dilution of America’s drinking palate.
The 20th Century began as a great time to drink in America. Kevin Kosar, editor of AlchoholReviews.com, recounts the era as a time of improved distilleries, abundant vineyards, and booming local breweries. Much of the improvements were due to immigrants bringing over their drinking traditions -- Germans and brewing, Italians and Fernet-Branca. Americans were drinking better, stronger, more complex alcohol than they ever had before, and they had immigrants to thank for it.
Unfortunately, those new American brewers were about to bear the brunt of some pretty major anti-German sentiment in the buildup to WWI. Temperance advocates seized on the nativist fear and zeal of the era and successfully linked beer to the enemy. At a time when American brewing and distilling was just starting to take off, Prohibition nipped the country's production and our expanding demand in the bud.
The effects of drinking the swill necessitated by the Volstead Act, which enforced the 18th Amendment, reversed the upward trends in booze. If rotgut and literal bathtub gin didn’t kill you, it sure didn’t taste good. "Much of the bootleg Canadian whiskey was crummy," Kosar writes. "But desperate American drinkers were in no position to choose, and unscrupulous Canadians made a killing selling them thin, dull whiskey."
By the time Prohibition was repealed, the damage had already been done. “Americans had grown accustomed to lightly flavored alcoholic beverages,” Kosar laments, “and so that is what was supplied.”
The successive historic events didn’t help matters. In the fell swoop of one decade, we faced the one-two punch of the Depression and Dust Bowl. The '40s brought a grain and ethyl shortage courtesy of WWII that further stymied alcohol production. Any taste Americans might have developed for complexity in their food or drink was under constant siege by economics and war.
By the time we hit our '50s postwar boom -- our atomic age of refrigeration, mass food production, and TV dinners -- most of the public wasn’t interested in adding adventure to its drink or its food.
David Kamp’s book, The United States of Arugula, describes early American eating habits as “joyless” and “gluttonous,” consisting mainly of low-grade beef and over-boiled veggies “pitchfork[ed]” down one’s gullet. In the years since then, we were slow to develop: pickles and garlic (brought over by the same immigrants who once strengthened our vineyards and breweries) were regarded with grave suspicion. Common household meals were frankensteined together from canned, sodium-dense ingredients. We had bland meals, and, to wash them down, bland beers.
As America’s taste buds slowly but surely awoke in the '90s and aughts (thank you, immigrant chefs, Julia Child, and Food Network), its alcohol preferences did too. It happened in Northeast Ohio: Lola opened in ‘97, Parallax in 2004, to name a mere couple restaurants (from leading local restaurateurs Michael Symon and Zack Bruell, respectively) that brought Cleveland’s food scene national recognition early on. It took a few years, but with best-in-the-US bars like Velvet Tango Room and Porco, Cleveland’s cocktail culture has caught up too.
But with the inventory reduction looming over bars’ heads, the cocktail revolution faces a moment of potentially painful transition.