liquor cocktail
Drew Swantak/Thrillist
Food & Drink

Ohio Is Going to Ban Certain Liquors and It's (Partly) Prohibition's Fault

The Black Pig is one of Ohio City’s quieter spots. Only a few blocks removed from the crushing drag of Cleveland’s West 25th, the dark, French-influenced bar and restaurant feels like a very grown-up place to get a drink. Those who patronize The Black Pig know that it has one of the best cocktail menus in the city, thanks in part to bartender Jacob Feitler's creative use of lesser-known and unconventional spirits.

Above the bar, there’s a row of green bottles, all Dolin Genepy des Alpes: an herbal liqueur from France with which even the most studied drinkers may not be familiar. Until recently, it was one of Feitler's favorite ingredients for the Pig’s acclaimed drinks menu. Thanks to recent developments from Ohio Division of Liquor Control, that’s changing.

“I haven’t been able to get it for months,” Feitler says, his tone somewhere between anger and resignation. With Genepy stripped away, he’s missing a staple of his arsenal. And he could have several more taken from him before winter is over.

In an otherwise dry weekly activity report for mid-September, the Division of Liquor Control announced its plans for a warehouse inventory reduction. "We have identified 1,000 SKUs [stock keeping units -- in essence, products] that will be removed from the warehouses and will no longer be available for ordering," reads the release (the actual number ended up being a little north of 700). "These slow-moving products represent only 4% of sales in Ohio."

What this means for Ohio bar- and restaurant-goers: Some very good spirits, barring changes to the plan, will likely no longer be available in the state of Ohio. (Feitler's beloved Genepy was on the list.)

"Ohio is the red-headed stepchild of the liquor market."

The majority of products on the chopping block won’t be missed by most in the state. “No one’s going to mourn the loss of Berry Acai Vodka in 175 mL,” says Feitler. Flavored liquors as wide-ranging as root beer, rainbow sherbert, and (not kidding) smoked salmon make up the bulk of the list.

But the state is throwing out some recently earned prized gems along with its proverbial bathwater, and the losses that craft bartenders stand to sustain are disappointing to severe.

Two brands of mezcal, a spirit only just allowed into the state two years ago, appear on the list, as does Hayman’s Old Tom Gin, one of the best variations in the market. Pisco Porton, the leading brand of an up-and-coming spirit, is on it. Perhaps most devastating of all: Cherry Heering, a flavored liqueur that's the cornerstone spirit of classic cocktails like the Singapore Sling and the Blood and Sand, is on the chopping block.

Now bars and bar programs like The Black Pig’s that rely on the so-called “bottom 4%” have to figure out their next move. Feitler has a plan for the immediate future: “We’re squirrelling away Cherry Heering in the basement.” Like many area bartenders, he’s frustrated with the developments from DLC. “There are already so many things we can’t get in Ohio,” he says.

Kevin Patrick, the bar manager at Bistro 185 in Collinwood, couldn’t agree more. “Ohio is the red-headed stepchild of the liquor market,” he says. “They don’t bring us anything.” Travel to other states has only underscored this point for him. “I was in Michigan earlier this year, and they had stuff I’d never seen before -- in a Friday’s.”

Ask your average bargoer how the state ended up with such a limited liquor selection and the answer will likely place blame on Ohio’s Midwestern prudishness or small-town values. While this may not be entirely off-base, it’s only a small piece in a large and complex puzzle.

To understand why the state is ramping up to de-list a number of quality liquors, you have to understand Ohio’s status as a control state. To understand how we became a control state, you have to go back to Prohibition. And to understand Prohibition, you have to start in Ohio, where, during the build-up to the 18th Amendment we outlawed booze a full six months before the rest of the nation. And, depending on who you talk to, we may never have re-legalized it at all.

Fanning the flames of Prohibition

Prohibition -- the era, if not the actual practice -- has enjoyed something of a comeback in the past few years. PBS made an excellent documentary series, Baz Luhrman made his glitter-dusted Great Gatsby, a million fraternities threw Roaring Twenties-themed parties. Modern interpretations often imagine it as a hedonistic golden age when everyone downed drinks called The Bee’s Knees while dressed like sexy flappers and mob bosses.

For the moneyed elite of New York and a few other major American cities, Prohibition was just that. For everyone else, though, its effects were devastating: it empowered and emboldened the American mafia, deputized the Klan, killed or blinded tens of thousands with rotgut booze, and laid the groundwork for our current costly War on Drugs. It was, in other words, a colossal failure of an attempt at legislated morality. And it started right here in Ohio.

You can trace a straight line back from the passing of the 18th Amendment in 1919, which legally banned booze sales nationwide, to the founding of the Ohio Anti-Saloon League, arguably the most influential temperance organization in history. Founded in 1893 in Oberlin, a famed liberal arts college town an hour outside Cleveland, the organization moved its headquarters in 1909 to Westerville, a less-famed liberal arts college town a half hour outside Columbus. (In case you ever doubted the pull of history on this place: Oberlin might be known as an anything-goes hippie haven today, but Westerville -- nicknamed the "Dry Capital of the World” -- was a completely dry county until 2006.) By the time the League put its roots down in Westerville, it had inspired and joined forces with a sister organization in Washington to form the Anti-Saloon League of America. Banded together, they were ready to take down drinking across America.

Women were at the forefront of the temperance movement, due in large part to rampant alcoholism and abuse among the factory-working men of the Midwest. These women couldn’t yet vote, but they could still raise hell. Take this story from the Ohio Memory project:

"...in Hillsboro, Ohio, in 1873, women marched through the town, stopping at every saloon (approximately twenty of them) and praying for the souls of the barkeepers and their patrons. The women also demanded that the owners sign a pledge to no longer sell alcohol. By 1875, more than 130 other communities around the state had also had experienced marches -- a period often known locally as the 'Ohio Whiskey War.'"

Couple the grassroots fervor of these women with the political clout of allies like John D. Rockefeller -- who, lest we forget, called Cleveland his home for many years -- and you get to 1919, when temperance became the law of the land. The 21st Amendment came along, the damage already done, and repealed Prohibition on December 5, 1933. What’s between is bloody, jazzy, gin-soaked history.

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.

Ohio's liquor sales remain Byzantine

When Prohibition was repealed, it was left to the states to choose how to regulate the sale of alcohol. This gave rise to two ways of doing things: open states and control states, aka ABC -- alcoholic beverage control -- states. Open states regulate alcohol as a private enterprise, while control states assumed a monopoly over the sale of liquor (basically, the alcoholic version of the legalized state-controlled weed initiative Ohioans voted down last year). Anyone who has ever purchased liquor in the state of Ohio will probably able to guess which one we are.

For bars and restaurants in Ohio, the process of ordering approved liquor -- which, in our state, is regulated separately from beer and wine -- goes something like this: the bar puts in an order with a privately-owned but state-licensed liquor store. The liquor store puts in an order with the state itself. The state then puts the order through to one of four bailment warehouses in the state (which are probably something like the storage facility at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark), where the bottles must go from storage to the liquor store to the bar.

If you think that process sounds a little complicated -- or even, dare we say, Kafkaesque -- you’re not alone.

“There are at least 10 people touching one order before it gets into a glass and into your face,” says Adam Roelle, the leading liquor representative for Cavalier Distributing in Ohio. “That’s too many touches. We’re just talking about a damn drink here.”

Roelle’s job puts him in frequent close contact with the Division of Liquor Control. Pop culture depictions of Ohioans regarding new things with rigid, Midwestern suspicion, dated as they may be, are unfortunately borne out by the legal hurdles of the DLC: Before any new spirit is sold in Ohio, it must be presented to the DLC, which then decides whether or not to “list” the spirit for sale (the reason many have taken to calling the potential removal of endangered spirits a “de-listing”).

That means a product like Illegal Mezcal was actually illegal to sell within state lines until Roelle (along with internationally recognized Columbus bartender Cris Dehlavi) pushed to get it listed in 2014. Products like Malort, a Chicago-made scotch with a cult following, still can’t be sold here. For the spirits they’ve helped bring in, Roelle credits the folks at Cavalier with “singlehandedly expanding the quality of imbibing in Ohio” by lobbying the state to let in new spirits.

A veteran of the industry (and an Ohio native), Roelle is able to lay out the tangled problems of the state's liquor monopoly in a way that makes more sense to the layperson. “Once [spirits] leave the warehouse, it is the state’s money,” he explains. "Popular brands like Patron or Hennessy are guaranteed money-makers for the state.” French grape brandies like Armagnac, another potentially delisted spirit? “Not so much."

"There are at least 10 people touching one order before it gets into a glass."

While Ohio imbibers might enjoy Cherry Heering in their tiki drink at Porco, they’re not picking up a bottle to store in their liquor cabinets at home. Slow-moving products can stay on the shelf for up to two years. And when these products are ordered in cases the same size as Jack Daniel’s, it makes for bad business. Most liquor store owners, whom Roelle says make “terrible margins,” are not going to take the time to try and market esoteric bottles when the name-brand products are steady sellers.

Who, then, is going to push strange spirits on the budding epicureans of Ohio? Joe DeLuca, a bar consultant considered by many to be a founding member of Cleveland’s cocktail scene, says the responsibility falls on bars and restaurants.

“About half of Americans don’t drink,” he says. “A lot who do just drink beer. And those that drink liquor mostly drink vodka.” And vodka, a mostly flavorless spirit, is generally not placed in high esteem among modern mixologists. So consumers of the new cocktail revolution are, in this way, not so different than the privileged Gatsby set enjoying all the good booze in Prohibition-era New York (or that Friday's in Michigan).

“The state isn’t picking winners and losers,” says DeLuca. “We are.” He believes bartenders should do more to educate consumers on the finer, lesser-known spirits. “Put it in your menu and highlight it,” he suggests. “Pour more of it.”

It is our taxpayer money on the shelf, argues DeLuca, so we can’t completely blame the state for pulling product when it's downsizing from four bailment warehouses to two. “Any business would do the same.”

liquor cocktail bar
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Liberate our libations

It’s hard to tell how much of Prohibition’s hangover is cultural and how much is legal. Ohio’s Blue Laws restricting Sunday liquor sales call our Anti-Saloon ancestors to mind, whereas regulations like the recently lifted ban on high-alcohol beer seem more like a bureaucratic failure of imagination. The one thing state government might not have a monopoly over is wine shipping, but only because the 18th Amendment turned that into a national problem.

Clearly, there isn't a dearth of bars in Cleveland. There's beer and liquor aplenty, even if the beer is lite and the liquor is something you can find in your average Applebee's. But like the college freshman grateful just to be invited to the kegger, we're missing out on a world of booze not currently available to us, blissfully unaware of what's happening behind the curtain.

It’s a fair question to ask, “Does any of this really matter?” The usual arguments are fair: there are far bigger political problems to worry about, and, at the end of the day, it is just booze we’re talking about here.

But to call a thoughtfully crafted cocktail “just booze” seems as wrongheaded as calling a plate of marrow from Lola -- or a Polish Boy from Seti’s, for that matter -- “just food.” Great experiences in food and drink move us and uplift us. They are the lynchpin of nights on the town. They can make or break occasions as trifling as a work meeting or as huge as a wedding reception. And for the denizens of The Comeback City, the recognition by national publications furnishes a sense of civic pride.

Their impact is more than just emotional: If the rising quality of bars and restuarants isn’t at the heart of Ohio’s urban revival, it’s certainly an integral part of it.

Roelle wants to make clear that the “de-listing” is not final. “Basically, we have about four months to save these products.” What we should do in that time: “Put the goddamn Moscow Mule down and order a sloe gin fizz.” He also encourages businesses to make some noise. “Bars and restaurants can be the squeaky wheel,” he says. “I continuously called and complained until I got what I wanted."

"Put the goddamn Moscow Mule down and order a sloe gin fizz."

Roelle, for one, is hopeful, but, like most in the mixology business in Ohio, fed up. “Prohibition started in Ohio. It still exists in Ohio because of money.” He draws comparisons to last year’s proposition to create a state-controlled monopoly on marijuana, a measure voters rejected. “People don’t understand that’s exactly what we do with liquor,” he says.

the spotted owl cleveland
Nathan Dreimiller

The stuff of legend

Monday, December 5th was Repeal Day, marking the 83rd year since Prohibition ended. A few bars had already celebrated. Mostly, it was a quiet night for Cleveland’s bar scene; maybe they didn’t feel much like celebrating, though Mondays are often low-key in Tremont's The Spotted Owl. Opened in 2014, the Owl is another of our bars widely recognized for its elaborate craft cocktails like the bar’s signature drink, And Fire Green as Grass.

“I’ll stack it against any drink out there,” says owner Will Hollingsworth.

And Fire Green as Grass is a miracle of balance in a cocktail: Bombay East gin, navy-strength rum, St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram, and green Chartreuse. It’s all booze, yet remarkably drinkable. It’s a beautiful, gold-green color and made with exquisite care by the bar staff. And half of its ingredients could vanish from the state next year.

Hollingsworth’s goal, like many in Ohio’s still-young cocktail revolution, is simple: “Make the best drinks between Chicago and New York. We want to do that in Ohio, not in Michigan or Pennsylvania. The system is a huge challenge to that goal.” Like many other bartenders, he finds a hard-won silver lining. “If operating within this system means we just have to be that much more creative, so be it.”

So what will happen to the lauded And Fire Green as Grass if the inventory reduction plan goes forward? “I’ll 86 it,” says Hollingsworth. “At least it can die young and become the stuff of legend.”

Drinking will continue in Cleveland and Ohio if the de-listing goes forward. It just won’t be the same.

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Billy Hallal is voting for booze with his wallet. Join him in the fight and follow him at @HillyBallal.