Today marks the 79th anniversary of the passage of the 21st Amendment, effectively ending Prohibition. The 14 years when it was illegal to sell, manufacture, and transport alcohol transformed American drinking habits, and many of Prohibition's manifestations live on. So make yourself a cocktail of bathtub gin and toast Prohibition (and its repeal) for its gifts to American popular culture:
1. Mixed-gender drinking and the invention of "dating"
Before Prohibition, public drinking tended to center around the saloons — most of which barred women. "Mixed gender drinking really was introduced during prohibition," says Thomas Pegram of Loyola University Maryland, with men and women drinking together in speakeasies, at dinner parties, in hotel rooms, and other new venues. Though mixed-gender drinking occurred among lower classes and immigrant populations before prohibition, after the 18th Amendment, which banned the sale of alcohol, middle- and upper-class women drank more booze more conspicuously than ever before. This trend went hand-in-hand with giving women the right to vote in 1920 (the same year Prohibition went into effect) and the electrification of the country, which brought household appliances to upper- and middle-class homes and gave women more leisure time.
Heterosocial drinking also changed the way men and women met one another. "Basically the argument is that people invented dating and that it is the end of courtship," explains Christine Sismondo, who wrote America Walks into a Bar. Perhaps the most famous example of a speakeasy-facilitated romance was between Irving Berlin and Ellin Mackay. Mackay, the heiress of an established Irish Catholic family, and Berlin, a self-made, Russian-born, Jewish songwriter, met at a speakeasy and eventually married (against the wishes of MacKay's father). "That wouldn't have been possible before the speakeasy," says Sismondo.
2. Mixed drinks
Though some cocktails predate Prohibition, Americans before the 18th Amendment were overwhelmingly beer drinkers. But the booze ban forced drinkers to improvise with highly alcoholic "bathtub gin," crude bourbon, and moonshine. "This created a challenge for speakeasies. They had to make [liquor] into something palatable," says Garrett Peck, author of The Prohibition Hangover. "What they were drinking really was crap." Thus, sweeter mixers were used to mask the harsh taste of bootleg hooch. For instance, ginger ale replaced soda water as the mixer of choice for whiskey, and Coca Cola saw its sales triple during Prohibition (the beverage enjoyed the benefit of being both the alternative drink for those who adhered to Prohibition and a great mask of the foul tasting liquor for those who didn't).
Corn whiskey and moonshine crafters in Appalachia needed a way to get their grog from mountain stills to the speakeasy counter. So they hired daredevil drivers that could outrun police — often driving dark country roads at night without lights — to deliver their product to the booze-craving city slickers. Many of these drivers met on the weekends to race, and continued to run liquor after repeal (moonshiners still sought to evade taxes and regulation). After World War II, a group of former bootleggers made the racing league official with the formation of National Association for Stock Car Racing.
4. Light Beer
In April 1933, a few months before full-on repeal, Congress passed and President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Cullen-Harrison Act, which deemed beer with 3.2 percent alcohol by volume "nonintoxicating," thus permitting its manufacture and distribution. "People went nuts," says Peck, and bars immediately began selling 5 cent "light beer" to the thirsty masses. Light beer is still very popular in the form of Bud Light, Miller Light, and Coors Light (though its alcohol by volume has crept up above 4 percent).
5. The Booze Cruise
"Prohibition sparked the first alco-tourism ever," says Sismondo, with Americans trekking to Canadian border towns and to Havana to wet their whistles. According to David Okrent's Last Call, the European cruise industry also benefited from the rise of alco-tourism. Though American-owned cruises could not sell alcohol on their ships (and were dryer than any place on American soil), British and French lines grew their transatlantic routes as Americans flooded their parlors, unable to go a week without a drink. The American cruise industry saw a steep decline in business while French and British lines thrived.