With the excitement of the holiday season barreling down upon us you probably didn’t even pause to take stock of the most important of days: December 5th. Repeal Day.
Repeal Day marks the passing of the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution which acknowledges that the past 13 years of alcohol Prohibition were in fact a terrible idea and ensured every man and woman in these United States could have a drink in celebration, in mourning or because it’s five o’clock somewhere. The day has become bartender holiday thanks to Jeffery Morgenthaler. Wander into any “serious” cocktail bar on December 5th and you’ll find a whole menu devoted to raising a glass to the end of the Great Experiment. But should we really be celebrating?
Repeal Day is a complicated concept for me. On the one hand, through the lens of history, and through a half empty cocktail glass, it is easy to see that Prohibition was a terrible idea. According t
o it’s proponents it was supposed to reduce drinking, domestic violence towards women and children, crime, poverty and cut government spending. That’s a tall order that never got filled. Spending, taxes, and crime all took and uptick and respect for the rule of law dropped as people openly flaunted their lawlessness. There’s even a word for those people, a Scofflaw. And of course there’s also a drink of the same name.
Prohibition also indirectly gave birth to the Federal Income Tax. Before Prohibition 30-40% of the Federal budget was generated from taxes on alcohol. The passing of the 16th Amendment in 1913 which legalized the Federal Income Tax was helped, in part, by Prohibitionists.
Prohibition also disconnected us from our past culturally. Almost every culture around the world has some form of native spirit and drinking tradition to go with it that is passed from parent to child. A respect for alcohol as a part of every day life and of the culture we share together. Prohibition removed alcohol, shoved it outside the light, demonized it yet also made it tantalizing. We want what we can’t have, but if we don’t understand the danger we’re going to burn ourselves. We can still see those effects today with our modern drinking habits.
As a bartender, Prohibition also broke our trade. Before it passed the art of tending bar was a recognized and respected trade. For 13 years the trade languished, with no one to teach a new generation and the skills and knowledge were forgotten. And then even worse for the trade Prohibition ended. On the very first day that you could sell booze everyone wanted to. Which means you needed bartenders. And there weren’t enough left so it became a job of amateurs. The end of Prohibition was possibly the worst thing to ever happen to the American “mixology” tradition. It’s taken us 80+ years to get even close to having the same kind of professionalism that was expected back then.
But the fact that Repeal Day finally happened means that I have a job today. So, like I said, I have mixed feelings about it.
Just like I do about this new expression of the Old Forrester Whiskey Row Series. Dubbed the 1920 Prohibition style it pays homage to not only the legacy of Old Forester as the first Bourbon ever sold exclusively in the bottle but to the fact that Brown-Forman, the makers of Old Forester, were granted one of just six licenses to continue distilling “medicinal” whiskey during Prohibition. According to the company this expression is bottled at 115 proof in homage to the fact that the barrel entry proof, the proof the whiskey would be put into the barrel at, was significantly lower than todays 125 proof which creates a different flavor as it ages.
There’s no age statement, which is unsurprising these days, but like all Old Forester expression it is rich in that corn sweetness with a massive vanilla, a touch of leather on the nose, caramelized orange peel on the finish and a big heat from the proof layered over a tart apple middle.
If we remove my personal biases towards Bottled-in-Bond products it’s easily my favorite of the Whiskey Row Series.
But the story about the barrel entry proof rings like nothing but marketing speak to me. It sounds like a way to try to capitalize and the popularity of Barrel Proof/Strength whiskies while just standardizing the offering which negates all of the supposed joy and individuality of Barrel Proof bottles. Add in the lack of an age statement and the price point and like I said, I’m conflicted.
But we have to keep experimenting and learning from our past. Prohibition didn’t end with out a fight and it took a lot of hard work and education. Progress isn’t a steady state, but rather comes in great leaps and then tends to run smack into a wall it was slow down to climb before the next leap. But looking back can show us where we’ve been and help us make the next climb more quickly. So raise a glass to history, to Repeal, and to the next climb.