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)


The Dry Crusader: Wayne Wheeler’s Quest for Prohibition

‘My childhood was an idyllic time in the most beautiful country. The sun shone brightly every spring and summer, making the great fields of wheat and corn glow brightly as they sway in the gentle breeze. I was so fond of working in those fields and doing such valuable work in God’s land. That is, until one day, a vagabond who worked on our farm was so besotted, he carelessly thrashed about his scythe and injured me greatly. His drunken misconduct taught me a valuable lesson: alcohol is the root of dangerous acts. Had he not been drunk, my idyllic childhood would not be tarnished with such a sorrowful stain.’

Sounds quite traumatizing does it not? Would hearing this story convince you to throw out all the alcohol in your house and campaign on this single issue until alcohol was totally banned? Well, the above story is only a fictionalized version, but a similar anecdote was shared by the leader of the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) in the early 20th century. He worked tirelessly to advocate a single issue policy: the prohibition of alcohol. The efforts of the Anti-Saloon League pushed for passage of the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act. They did so with such ravenous lobbying that many U.S. Representatives and Senators caved to their pressure for fear of losing their seat in the next election cycle. The man who oversaw all these political operations was Wayne Bidwell Wheeler. 

Wayne B. Wheeler, executive director of the Anti-Saloon League (image courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Before delving into Wayne Wheeler himself, it’s vital to understand the history and mission of the Anti-Saloon League within the larger story of Prohibition. Since the early 1800s, various temperance groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union advocated for the reduction and strict limitations of alcohol production and consumption. These early groups included alcohol temperance as part of their many causes to improve society, such as changing child labor laws, public sanitation, women’s suffrage, and urban housing. In 1893, the Anti-Saloon League was founded in Oberlin, Ohio and they adopted a different approach from preceding groups. The ASL advocated for a total ban on the manufacture, distribution, and sale of alcohol and pursued it as a single issue platform. The total ban of alcohol was the organization’s only mission. The group exploded in membership and in a couple of years, they became a powerful national lobbying group whose influence stretched from local city government to the U.S. Congress. The league published thousands of pamphlets, leaflets, news articles, and gained a massive following with local churches so Wheeler utilized those connections to great advantage. The ASL was different from previous popular movements due to their bureaucratic, corporate structure and building departments dedicated to a certain aim of the organization. The publishing department wrote to thousands of newspapers and at one point, the ASL had whole page stories and columns in nearly every major newspaper in the United States. Enter Wayne Wheeler and his crusader zeal. 

Wheeler began his work with the ASL campaigning from door-to-door and sharing the anti-alcohol message. Wheeler joined the ASL shortly after their founding and quickly rose through the ranks, eventually becoming the executive director in 1904. Wheeler earned his law degree from Western Reserve University while working for the ASL and along with his teacher background, he was the organization’s most effective organizer and lobbyist. He embarked on a special brand of political lobbying (selfishly labeled Wheelerism) that became his trademark. he heavily pressed on the issue of prohibition and did so through any means to get a vote from elected officials. If they did not support prohibition legislation, Wheeler mobilized ASL followers to vote against them. The best case example was with Myron T. Herrick in his re-election for Governor of Ohio. Herrick supported local option laws that were backed by the ASL, but when he tried to modify them slightly, Wheeler used the publishing arm of the ASL to denounce him, and it worked. Herrick’s defeated was a monumental victory for the ASL which now demonstrated their political power. 

Political cartoons were effective in drawing attention to the issue of alcohol and the evils of the saloons (image courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Wheeler’s leadership model focused on achieving national prohibition by any means necessary. He was known on occasion to work with wet (pro-alcohol) politicians who were willing to vote on dry (anti-alcohol) legislation. This horrified some within the ASL, but Wheeler’s die-hard lobbying and cult-like followers were able to get results in every local and state election in passing dry laws. As more dry politicians were elected to office, the prospect of enacting a constitutional amendment banning alcohol became more of a reality. Single issue lobbying was forcing many legislators to choose a side as prohibition became a wedge issue. Wheeler also took the approach of focusing on the margin electorates. This meant that he needed to convince the small number of undecided voters to push them into choosing a side. This was accomplished by constantly pushing for change until they were worn down. 

Anti-Saloon League supporters turned up in large numbers at every election and by 1910, their political influence was unparalleled in Washington D.C. Despite this, they were still unable to garner enough votes to pass national prohibition or even a constitutional amendment on alcohol. The federal government relied heavily on alcohol tax revenue, but that changed in 1913 when Congress established an income tax with the 16th Amendment. Now with the government’s primary source of revenue coming from the general population instead of one industry, the economic argument for keeping alcohol collapsed. Wheeler quickly advanced upon dry legislators to pass the 18th Amendment and he himself was involved in drafting the Volstead Act, setting the draconian rules for alcohol’s usage. After years of political pressure and advocating, Wheeler and the ASL finally achieved their goal of national prohibition. 

The story of Wayne Wheeler doesn’t end with the passage of the 18th Amendment. The height of the league’s power in the 1920s now required them to constantly press home the need to prohibit alcohol, but the lobbying strength needed to do so was beginning to fade. Intent on keeping the issue of alcohol in the national spotlight, Wheeler sought to influence the Bureau of Prohibition and monitor the selection of agents to enforce the Volstead Act. Throughout his tenure with the Bureau, he entered a dark phase of condemning those who consumed tainted alcohol. Wheeler didn’t feel sympathy for those who died from tainted alcohol (tainted sometimes by the government’s orders). This callous, cold attitude turned off many political supporters from Wheeler who started to change their dry positions. Wheeler was also an uncompromising individual who refused to change his stance on prohibition, which ended any prospect of adjusting the Volstead Act in order to reduce the number of violations. The public outcry surrounding his comments on the victims of tainted alcohol forced him into an early retirement from the ASL, but he never ceased his prohibition lobbying. Wheeler suffered a series of personal tragedies; his wife and father-in-law died from a house fire and heart attack respectively within hours of each other and on September 5, 1927, Wayne died from a chronic kidney disease. 

Wayne’s legacy doesn’t only encompass Prohibition, but also the effectiveness of pressure politics that force people to choose sides on a wedge issue. We can see it today in a variety of political arguments surrounding immigration, abortion, LGBTQ rights, drugs, and more where groups tirelessly campaign for a single issue. We can learn from these lobbying tactics and see how they impact our government today. There is so much we can learn from the history of Prohibition; it’s not all speakeasies and gangsters, but a moral quest that battled for America’s soul. 

Detroit police inspecting equipment found in a clandestine underground brewery during the prohibition era (Records of the U.S. Information Agency, 1900 – 2003, National Archives and Records Administration)



The Unadulterated McCoy: Rum-Running on the Eastern Seaboard

Bootlegging stories from Prohibition tell of some pretty elaborate and colorful schemes by criminals. Smuggling alcohol through customs, making bathtub gin, adopting religious pseudonyms for sacramental wine, and sailing out to Rum Row are just some of the stories that have become Americana. They were breaking what many interpreted as an unjust law. How un-American was it to ban alcohol? How dare some politicians close down the Jack Daniels and Jim Beam distilleries? Or iconic brewers such as Anheuser-Busch, Schlitz, and Pabst? The scofflaws who flouted the 18th Amendment and Volstead Act believed they were battling against tyranny by drinking and bringing alcohol to their customers.

Bootlegging operations ran all over the Western Hemisphere; from Canada all the way down to Central and South America. Gangsters from infamous crime families to families making home-brewed beer subverted Prohibition for different reasons and contemporary historians investigate the morality involved in all types of bootleggers. Many of them cut corners by thinning alcohol with industrial chemicals or herbal concoctions that could make them downright deadly. When a person bought beer or distilled spirits from a bootlegger, they were potentially risking their lives.

William S. McCoy, captain of the schooners Tomoka and Henry L. Marshall. William and Benjamin (not pictured) ran rum-running operations along the Eastern Seaboard for about four years until they were finally apprehended by the U.S Coast Guard (photo courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard)

A sea captain with a heroic, folklore reputation rose above the blanket categorization of bootlegger. He prided himself on never having worked with organized crime or watering down and polluting his alcohol with adulterants. William McCoy, and his brother Benjamin, were partners in a smuggling operation that ran from the Caribbean all the way up the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. Bootlegging to William McCoy was his way of being an ‘honest lawbreaker’. He found inspiration with John Hancock, the Founding Father whose shipping business was at the center of questioning unfair British taxes and smuggling in the American colonies. William and Benjamin gained a reputation in the early 1910s as skilled craftsmen and boat builders in Florida. They ran a small motor boat service and shipyard, but at the start of Prohibition in 1920, the McCoy family fell on hard times. Boat freights were slowly replaced with the growing trucking industry and the brothers stood at a crossroads. What could they do to earn a living? How could they use their skills to earn money in this new environment? The answer came easily: rum-running.

Drawing on his maritime knowledge and experience as a sea captain, McCoy shipped vast quantities of alcohol from Caribbean islands (the Bahamas and Bimini primarily) up through shipping lanes to Florida. Buyers flooded McCoy with purchase orders to fill demands in the southern United States. In just one trip, McCoy generated enough profit to pay off the main business expense, his schooner the Henry L. Marshall. McCoy expanded the rum-running venture to purchase six more vessels, including the Tomoka which he registered under British customs to divert suspicion from the U.S. Coast Guard. McCoy further avoided capture from authorities by pioneering an idea of having barges and freighters filled with product anchored at least three miles offshore in international waters. The floating alcohol wholesalers became known colloquially as ‘Rum Row’. Credit for this idea has historically gone to McCoy, according to both family records and the U.S. authorities. By completing business deals at sea, customers could purchase orders and when ready for pickup, they were outside U.S. jurisdiction. For three years, from 1920 to 1923, McCoy routinely pocketed anywhere from $50,000 to $100,00 per delivery (approx. $600,000 to $1,000,000 dollars today). The brothers’ run came to end on November 23, 1923 when the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Seneca tracked the Tomoka into international waters and apprehended the brothers. William McCoy was charged with multiple violations of the Volstead Act and rather than taking his case to trial, McCoy plead guilty to the charges and spent nine months in a New Jersey jail and paid a large fine. Despite having lost the profitable rum-running venture and his ships confiscated by the Coast Guard, the McCoys amassed a considerable fortune that they later put back into their boat building business and into the booming Florida real estate market.

Rum Row brought alcohol straight from the international market. Buyers could purchase anything from blended whisky and rum to the finest wines and champagnes (photo courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard)

Unlike other bootleggers and rum-runners, the McCoy brothers took measures to deliver the best product to their clients. They never engaged in diluting their alcohol or cutting it with dangerous substances. Business with organized crime figures was never conducted and they even paid their crews more than other rum running outfits to keep them from stealing product. The rum running business was a game-changer for the Bahamian economy. Exploding alcohol sales and increase in alcohol tourism at the time made the Bahamas a vacation hot spot. This was due large in part to Prohibition and the scores of rum runners who bought their product overseas and sold it in international waters. Despite numerous complaints by the U.S. government, the British Foreign Office never intervened in the rum running operations. But Prohibition is not without its darker narratives as is the case with all history.  Alcohol statistics during the Prohibition are, in the best definition, paradoxical. Production, sale, distribution, and consumption of alcohol was down and alcohol related crimes such as driving under the influence and public intoxication was down in some regions. On the contrary, that same data showed an exponential increase in other regions; so much that even stricter legislation was passed to crack down on abusers (e.g. New York’s Mullan-Gage Law). Prohibition crafted the national crime syndicates between crime families and in the law’s attempt to ban alcohol, the number of alcohol related fatalities exploded overnight. These were times where people really went off the deep end.

Researching the history of Prohibition without incorporating William McCoy is akin to discussing the Constitutional Convention and not mentioning Alexander Hamilton or James Madison. McCoy’s rum running career gained a folklore status in the U.S. and his story stands out among bootleggers for his aversion to violence and retiring early to capitalize on his adventurous gains.

The Death Knell for Alcohol: World War I

The impact of the Great War reverberated throughout world history. Millions of lives were changed in four years, putting nations on radically different paths. In the United States, the war fundamentally shifted how the nation viewed itself in global affairs and how it behaved at home. As industries and the federal government prepared for conflict, a social movement that brewed for nearly eighty years saw the golden opportunity to achieve its ultimate goal: the national prohibition of alcohol.

Francis Willard advocated for many different causes, one of which was alcohol temperance, Library of Congress, circa 1890)

The 18th Amendment was ratified in January 1919 and Prohibition exactly one year later, not long following the armistice. However, the story of Prohibition began decades earlier with the temperance movements in the 1830s. Dry forces advocated for to limit the consumption of alcohol as the scourge of alcoholism ruined families and was a root cause for domestic abuse and vagrancy. Temperance was practiced at first; regulating and restricting the amount one could drink. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) advocated heavily throughout the late 19th century on these issues, while simultaneously addressing a host of other reforms; their motto of ‘Do Everything’. Francis Willard, national president of the WCTU pushed heavily for temperance practices in North America, advocating the moral causes for banishing The WCTU quickly established themselves as the leader of progressive causes, but the single issue of alcohol was taken up by another organization: the Anti-Saloon League (ASL). The ASL engaged in large-scale lobbying that called for the total prohibition of alcohol and set the path for a constitutional amendment. Alcohol, they believed, was a moral scourge upon families, causing poverty, and criminal figures operating from saloons fostered public corruption.

The Great War itself wasn’t the only contributing factor to the amendment’s passage, but instead it was the culmination of decades of work carried out by temperance and progressive groups.

Large breweries looked to secure their essential economic role through lobbying and political groups, such as the United States Brewers Association and the German-American Alliance. The wets, opponents of prohibition, staved off alcohol restrictions through their lobbying and commercial interests. Wet leaders like Adolphus Busch embarked on massive public relations campaigns showing the essential role the alcohol industry played in the American economy. Federal tax revenue depended heavily on alcohol sales, but that changed drastically in 1913 following passage of the 16th Amendment implementing an income tax. No longer was the government reliant on alcohol excise taxes, which gave progressive advocates much needed support for prohibition.

The final blow for the wet camp came in 1916 with the escalation of hostilities between the U.S. and Germany. President Wilson relied heavily on dry politicians in order to pass critical wartime legislation, such as raising taxes, federalizing industries, and expanding the armed forces. For the most part, President Wilson tended to abstain from the prohibition argument himself, but many of his new laws, including the War Revenue and Lever Food and Fuel Control Acts directly benefited the drys that saw the legislation hurting the wets. The ASL argued that breweries also diverted precious grains away from European markets that needed to feed armies. Food was critical and when people were asked to give up meat and wheat on certain days by Herbert Hoover’s Food Administration, the production of beer was seen as a waste (even though brewers claimed they only used a minuscule fraction of grain for brewing beer).

Wayne Wheeler, Executive Director of the Anti-Saloon League. Wheeler was instrumental in organizing dry voters and politicians in passing anti-liquor laws (Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress, 1920)

By 1917, unrestricted submarine warfare was taking its toll on U.S. shipping. As the war dragged on, anti-German sentiment grew, fueling resentments against wets now seen as synonymous with Germans. Wayne Wheeler, executive director and chief strategist for the ASL, began probing Congress to investigate organizations with ties to the Central Powers; specifically focusing on the German-American Alliance and the Brewers Association. Senators found that the GAA received substantial funding from the USBA in order to keep wet interests strong and afford them a degree of leniency when it came to wartime exemptions. This paled in comparison to what Wayne Wheeler relayed back to the ASL; that the Busch family still had relatives in Germany, held German war bonds, and even reportedly cared for wounded German soldiers. Anti-German hysteria and the call for prohibiting alcohol to better serve the war effort, messages that were only amplified by the Committee on Public Information, were ripe conditions for passing more restrictive alcohol laws. The Committee embarked on propaganda campaigns aimed at demonizing Germans and targeting German influence in the country; most obvious being the brewers.

Prohibition agents dumping beer down the sewers and storm drains, a common tactic for disposing of alcohol.

All of this fed into the anti-German hysteria the drys used to galvanize support for prohibition.  Brewing dynasties like Busch and Pabst re-branded their images to support American involvement; removing references to Germany, buying liberty bonds, and encouraging family and workers to enlist. Despite their best efforts, the ASL had the political and public momentum to initiate their plan.

‘Prohibition Agents Destroying a Bar’, Paris Bureau of the New York Times (Records of the U.S. Information Agency, 1900-2003, National Archives and Records Administration.)

This was the perfect moment for the drys to enact prohibition legislation. Congress had already passed the Wartime Prohibition Act in 1918 restricting grain supplies to breweries, but now total prohibition enshrined as a constitutional amendment became a reality. Following the 18th Amendment was the National Prohibition Act which set enforcement laws for the new amendment. Even with President Wilson’s veto, it was overridden by Congress and national prohibition enforcement would begin in January 1920. As U.S. soldiers began returning from France, they faced a sobering reality; after January 17, 1920, they could no longer buy, sell, manufacture, or transport alcohol. Well, not legally at least.

‘National Prohibition Act [Volstead Act]’ Office of the Federal Register, Enrolled Acts and Resolutions of Congress, 66th Congress of the United States, October 28, 1919. NARA. The Volstead Act defined language and set enforcement regulations for the 18th Amendment.