Nothing Like Homemade: Making Beer, Wine, and Spirits during Prohibition

People surprise you when it comes to finding innovative ways overcoming an obstacle. Ask any contractor, tailor, chef, or any profession really and they’ll tell you about an intriguing problem and the equally intriguing approach they took to solve it. Now whether that’s done legally or not, that’s a different question altogether. During Prohibition, the public still wanted their alcohol and if they couldn’t afford prices set by bootleggers (or risk being caught by authorities), they made their own. What’s striking is that even though the drys pushed for national prohibition, neither the 18th Amendment or the Volstead Act banned the consumption of alcohol itself. Therefore it was still legal to drink alcohol, but illegal to produce, distribute, or sell alcohol.

The first draft of the Volstead Act stipulated that anything with more than one-half of one percent alcohol content was illegal. The problem with that was it would have outlawed industrial alcohol needed to make products such as embalming fluid, rubbing alcohol, varnish, aftershave, and various cleaning chemicals. Revisions lifted such restrictions, on the condition that manufacturers obtain permits for industrial alcohol production. Wayne Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon League pushed for draconian enforcement measures, but to pass the 18th Amendment and Volstead Act, he was forced to compromise and remove certain clauses. Drinking alcohol was still legal under the act, opening a considerable legal loophole for the public and bootleggers.

Drug stores and pharmacies were allowed under the Volstead Act to sell alcohol for medical use and consumption, if they received proper permits. Those who didn’t (or were caught selling unauthorized prescriptions) the Prohibition Bureau shut them down

Two major exemptions that are commonly associated with the Volstead Act were the use of alcohol for religious and medicinal purposes. Parishes and synagogues received an allotment of sacramental wine every month. Priests and rabbis would only order a size comparable to their congregation. However, there was lax enforcement on verifying the number of priests and rabbis who applied for sacramental wine permits and purchasing them. Along the Eastern Seaboard, there was an explosion of applications from false clergy trying to obtain sacramental wine. Alcohol for medical use was allowed as well. Doctors were allowed to write a limited number of prescriptions per month and no more. However, it was really up to the doctor’s discretion on whether or not a particular ailment required prescribing alcohol. It also wasn’t uncommon for an ‘epidemic’ to break out in a neighborhood and whole families would come in seeking ‘treatment’.  Despite the Prohibition Bureau’s efforts to curb these law-dodging practices, they remained impotent to arrest these scofflaws.

The brewing industry changed their business practices, marketing, and manufacturing overnight to stay open during Prohibition. Brewers utilized the lead time from passing to ratification of the 18th Amendment to adjust their production lines. Their infrastructure allowed for an easy transition into other grocery products, such as ice cream, yeast, bread dough, and non-alcoholic near beer, which had the same taste as beer, but without the alcoholic content. Despite being banned from selling beer, the Volstead Act did not outlaw selling the ingredients to make beer. This allowed large brewing companies like Miller, Pabst, Schlitz, and Anheuser-Busch to sell products like malt extract and syrup. Although marketed primarily for bakers and for selling bread, inventive minds quickly learned how to make homemade beer from malt extract, yeast, and other ingredients. Near-beer products like Pivo and Bevo never really caught on, but these could have their alcohol content modified once purchased. At the moment of purchase, whatever people did with the brewing ingredients was at their discretion. It can be argued without a doubt that big brewers ignited the 1920s home-brewing craze and resonating to the present day with home-brewers trying new recipes all the time.

Malt syrup and extract products could be used to make beer at home. Although beer was outlawed, the ingredients used to make it were still available, leading to a rise of home-brewing and kept breweries in business

Hard liquor and spirits were harshly condemned by dry politicians and the Anti-Saloon League, citing them as the main evils and purpose of the 18th Amendment. Big distilleries such as Jack Daniels, Squibb, and Jim Beam were targeted by anti-alcohol forces and at the start of prohibition, their distilleries and warehouses were padlocked and placed under government bond. This meant that only those with proper government permits and credentials for using medicinal alcohol were allowed to withdraw said alcohol. Infamous bootlegger George Remus exploited this loophole by creating his own trucking and pharmaceutical company to withdraw bonded alcohol and sell to drug companies, at enormous profit. Hard liquor could be obtained by other ways through bootleggers bringing product down from Canada which was another profitable venture. Roy Olmstead brought down thousands of crates of whiskey, rum, gin, and champagne down from Canada and distributed across the Pacific Northwest, earning him the nickname ‘King of Puget Sound.’ Additionally, those who had the tools and resources to make their own spirits did so with gusto. Distilling moonshine in the Appalachian region stretched back to the days of the American Revolution and was a way of life to many families. Prohibition agents struggled to find and dismantle these clandestine stills hiding in the mountains and forests. Despite their efforts, moonshine and other whiskies kept producing and eluding federal agents.

Prohibition agents locate an illegal still in an underground bunker. Stills were hidden in almost any place that could be easily concealed. Common hiding places include bunkers, barns, caves, abandoned factories, and boats

The only proviso under the Volstead Act that allowed for the production of alcohol at home was wine. Individual households were allowed to preserve fruits for juice and ‘other purposes’ which was interpreted as wine could be made at home. As previously mentioned with beer, the alcohol itself was illegal to sell, but the individual ingredients could still be purchased. The wine industry made adjustments during Prohibition to accommodate the growing demand for fruit juices, but also the sacramental wine market. Fruit growers in California specifically adapted their crops to the new market by growing apricots, peaches, cherries, and other popular fruits. These same companies also found a unique way around the Volstead Act by indirectly selling the wine to consumers. Companies like Vine-Glo sold grape juice concentrate which consisted of a block dehydrated grapes. Conveniently, these blocks came with warning labels consisting of language such as ‘do not mix with sugar and leave in dark place’ or ‘do not allow fermentation by adding sugar’. Subtle hints like this were signs to customers that they could make wine in their homes. Wine companies and fruit growers utilized their home wine making exception by selling ready-to-make wine; just add water, sugar, and let ferment.

Grape brick sold by Vine-Glo. On the surface, it’s a block of dehydrated grapes that can be used to make grape juice; or for the more enterprising mind, wine

The major question that arose for many legislators, lawyers, and dry advocates who wanted the Volstead Act and the 18th Amendment upheld, what prevented law enforcement from stopping these work-arounds? Unfortunately based on the wording and descriptions within the Volstead Act, the raw ingredients used to make alcoholic beverages were not illegal and if in fact they were outlawed, they would have ended up banning fruits, wheat, barley, and other staples needed to produce basic foodstuffs. Temperance advocates and dry politicians banked on the assumption that people would respect the new law because of its enshrinement in the Constitution. The idea of breaking not only a law, but a constitutional amendment would deter people from drinking. However, the alcohol industry readily adapted to provide what wasn’t excluded and left it to the people to interpret what they will. Prohibition agents routinely searched for illegal stills and contraband, but were prevented from raiding grocery or drug stores in order to stop selling malt extract. There were an incalculable number of ways to procure alcohol during the 1920s and it perplexed the drys that a country that put a nation-wide ban on alcohol was also the world’s greatest importer of cocktail shakers.

People find unique ways to solve a problem. Not allowed to purchase wine? Well, you should know that it’s not a good idea to mix sugar, water, and dehydrated grapes, then leave the mixture in a cool, dark place. It’ll cause fermentation and you’ll get some strange smelling grape juice that only adults can drink. Just something I heard.

Moonshine still recently confiscated by the Internal Revenue Bureau photographed at the Treasury Department. Man standing next to still looking at contents of glass (photo courtesy of National Archives)


3 thoughts on “Nothing Like Homemade: Making Beer, Wine, and Spirits during Prohibition

  1. Pingback: U.S History╽Nothing Like Homemade: Making Beer, Wine, and Spirits during Prohibition | THE CHRONICLES OF HISTORY

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