What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word— Distillation?
- San Diego?
Well, not the last one, but probably a few of those. Generally when someone speaks about distillation the first thoughts that come to mind are going to be speakeasies, backwood stills, bourbon, Scotch, rum, tequila… probably one of the last things that anyone would ever think is San Diego. That makes sense, and I have no intentions to change that… just thought I’d throw it out there.
The question is WHY do these terms come to mind? In our humble opinion; Johnny Law. Revenuers. Taxes. $$$.
After the American Revolution the US Federal Government had a pretty big tab left behind. Alexander Hamilton being a moderate drinker himself (three glasses of wine a day max per his doctor’s order) saw the benefit of prescribing a tax upon an article of consumption. If the cost of drinking was too high, a consumer would slow consumption thus demising drunkenness, simultaneously, they could tax alcohol fairly high as most folks are willing to spend a shilling or two per gallon to have a nice drink. This would benefit both the federal government AND the populace… or so he thought.
The Whiskey Tax of 1791 did not make for a happy farmer/distiller, in fact, it sparked a rebellion. The first real test of George Washington’s new democracy. Five hundred Western Pennsylvanian farmers took to arms and stormed the fortified house of federal tax collector, General John Neville, and burned it to the ground. What was these farmer’s beef? Taxation without representation. A familiar tune to what started the American Revolution. Anyways, if this newly minted government was to survive they could not let a few farmer’s run around willy-nilly opposing taxes. So GW sent a force of 13,000 men to suppress the rebellion. The first real act of our Federal Government showing a willingness to stop violent resistance. Between that rebellion and about 1919 it was moderately smooth sailing, until…
Alcohol has always had a bit of stigma, in fact as early as 1657 in Massachusetts, there have been laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol and to this day 33 of 50 states still have dry counties. In fact, by 1850 the American Temperance Movement has 1,500,000 members and was growing quickly, but the Civil War kind of put a damper on their movement. By the election of 1916 there were strong factions in both the Republican and Democratic parties favoring both dry and wet legislation… so like any good Presidential Incumbent Woodrow Wilson ignored the issue, as did his rival. Germany and WWI inadvertently lead to a quicker passage of the 18th Amendment for two reasons: 1- German-Americans were one of the strongest opponents of the law and 2- with lessened agricultural demand we could focus on our supply-chain on the war effort. Somewhat ironically the war ended before the 18th Amendment was even ratified, but it did and on January 17th, 1920 prohibition began.
Boy, did that go badly. It was estimated that during prohibition 80% of congressmen and senators drank, all the while passing dry bills. How could they not? Prohibition was extremely profitable for those on the take. Organized crime received a major boost from the prohibition of alcohol. Moonshining, racketeering, bootlegging, it was madness. Since alcohol has uses in many industrial processes the Feds ordered that all industrial alcohol be poisoned and when the gangsters figured out how to denature that process they ordered even stronger poisons added! Unfortunately that did not deter everyone from drinking the poisoned hooch and as result an estimated 10,000 would die drinking methanol tainted alcohol before prohibition ended. If one positive effect arose out of prohibition it is that prior to the volstead act drinking was mostly a singularly male activity at saloons. During prohibition drinking became a co-ed event. So there is that, but one thing didn’t stop even after the passage of the 21st Amendment…
Moonshine is still very much alive and well in this country. Turn on the television and you are likely to run into a well-bearded pack of hillbillies making fools of themselves somewhere (No, not Duck Dynasty) but seriously, if your family has been making ‘likker’ for the better part of our county’s history chances are you are not going to stop because some tax-man says so. It is still prevalent in the Appalachians and Southeastern United States and some say it even lead to the invention of stock car racing, but you’ll have to ask Junior Johnson about that one…
Legal History: Part 2 — Names & Places