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When You Needed a Prescription for Alcohol

Bootlegging. Speakeasies. Bathtub gin. White lightning. So much of Prohibition-era slang revolves around procuring and drinking illegal booze. Still, there was a way to buy alcohol legally—you just needed a prescription.

According to its language, the 18th Amendment (which came into effect in 1920) banned "the manufacture, sale, or transport of intoxicating liquors” in the U.S. However, possessing or consuming alcohol isn’t addressed. Although some states went so far as to ban private possession of alcohol, national prohibition didn’t.

When Prohibition went into effect in 1920, the world of pharmaceutical medicine was still in its infancy. For example, penicillin was discovered in 1928 and wasn’t developed for commercial use until 1939. Diabetes was a death sentence until insulin was developed in 1921.

By 1920, cocaine had moved from being used as a medical tonic to being illegal. In the early 1900s, heroin was treated—and marketed—as a solution to morphine addiction. Nitrous oxide (also known as laughing gas) had only in the last few decades become popular with dentists, though it had been used recreationally for more than a century. By the start of Prohibition, ether and chloroform had been in use as anesthetics for about 75 years.

But alcohol-based herbal medicine had been around for much, much longer. Before the relatively recent inventions of pharmaceutical drugs, herbal tinctures were often the only treatments available for all kinds of maladies. In fact, many liqueurs were originally marketed for their medicinal properties. This ad from 1875 for Fernet-Branca claims that the liqueur “aids digestion, eliminates thirst, stimulates the appetite, heals intermittent fever,” and many other things to boot. What we now use as cocktail bitters were sold as stomach tonics and cure-alls.

The decade leading up to Prohibition brought changes to how alcohol was made and sold. The 1912 Sherley Amendment to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 regulated the claims manufacturers could make about the medicinal benefits of their tinctures. Since almost every bitters brand made specific, unsupported claims, most of them went out of business. Then, in 1917, the American Medical Association declared that alcohol was not a therapeutic drug.

Despite the medical community’s assertions, the Volstead Act (the Act that carried out Prohibition) made an exemption for alcohol used for “medicinal purposes when prescribed by a physician.” Once Prohibition went into effect, selling prescriptions became profitable. A prescription cost about $3 ($35 in today’s money), and a pint of medicinal whiskey that you could buy every week was another $3–$4. Regardless of actual medical benefit, medicinal liquor was quite profitable. Even the American Medical Association began changing their tune. In 1922, they conducted a referendum among doctors with the result that 51 percent felt whiskey was “a necessary therapeutic agent” (only 26 percent of doctors felt the same about beer).

At the onset of Prohibition, the government authorized 10 licenses to manufacturers looking to produce medicinal spirits, but only six producers applied. This lack of enthusiasm may have been caused by several factors. For one, the distilleries weren’t allowed to distill until 1929; instead, they were allowed to sell whiskey they had stockpiled before Prohibition came into effect for this purpose. Small distilleries didn’t have the financial resources or the production capabilities to wait that long to restart. However, the six that did take the medicinal licenses survived through Prohibition and still operate, though most do so under different names (for example, Frankfort Distillers is now Four Roses and Glenmore Schenley are now part of global spirits conglomerate Diageo).

In fact, some distilleries weathered Prohibition by shuttering their facilities and legally selling off their stock for medicinal use. Others, such as Laird’s & Co., began making nonalcoholic products to stay afloat. Other domestic brands’ stock disappeared, since it was difficult to keep rural warehouses locked and the product secure.

After Prohibition ended, few American distilleries survived. In fact, out of the 17 pre-Prohibition whiskey distilleries in Kentucky, only seven reopened afterwards. With the American spirits production crippled, the pre-Prohibition cocktail culture was likewise hamstrung.

Unfortunately, very few bottles of liquor from before Prohibition have survived to the present. However, many bottles of medicinal whiskey have survived (though it’s difficult to estimate just how many since these were largely part of private collections). But what survives from Prohibition is “surprisingly common,” writes bourbon historian Chuck Cowdery on his blog: “A bottle of it is a nice historical artifact but little else. The whiskey inside is generally awful.” 

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Courtesy New District
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Say ‘Cheers’ to the Holidays With This 24-Bottle Wine Advent Calendar
Courtesy New District
Courtesy New District

This year, eschew your one-tiny-chocolate-a-day Advent calendar and count down to Christmas the boozy way. An article on the Georgia Straight tipped us off to New District’s annual wine Advent calendars, featuring 24 full-size bottles.

Each bottle of red, white, or sparkling wine is hand-picked by the company’s wine director, with selections from nine different countries. Should you be super picky, you can even order yourself a custom calendar, though that will likely add to the already-high price point. The basic 24-bottle order costs $999 (in Canadian dollars), and if you want to upgrade from cardboard boxes to pine, that will run you $100 more.

If you can’t quite handle 24 bottles (or $999), the company is introducing a 12-bottle version this year, too. For $500, you get 12 reds, whites, rosés, and sparkling wines from various unnamed “elite wine regions.”

With both products, each bottle is numbered, so you know exactly what you should be drinking every day if you really want to be a stickler for the Advent schedule. Whether you opt for 12 or 24 bottles, the price works out to about $42 per bottle, which is somewhere in between the “I buy all my wines based on what’s on sale at Trader Joe’s” level and “I am a master sommelier” status.

If you want to drink yourself through the holiday season, act now. To make sure you receive your shipment before December 1, you’ll need to order by November 20. Get it here.

[h/t the Georgia Straight]

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Wally Gobetz, flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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A Brief History of the Pickleback Shot
Wally Gobetz, flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Wally Gobetz, flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It's sour. It's briny. For some, it's nauseating. For others, a godsend.

It's the pickleback shot, an unusual combination of drinking whiskey and pickle brine that has quickly become a bartending staple. Case in point? Kelly Lewis, manager of New York City's popular Crocodile Lounge, estimates she sells at least 100 pickleback shots every week.

Pickleback loyalists may swear by it, but how did this peculiar pairing make its way into cocktail culture? On today's National Pickle Day, we hit the liquor history books to find out.

PICKLEBACK HISTORY, AS WE KNOW IT

As internet legend has it, Reggie Cunningham, a former employee of Brooklyn dive bar Bushwick Country Club, invented the shot in March 2006. He was half bartending, half nursing a hangover with McClure's pickles, when a customer challenged him to join her in doing a shot of Old Crow bourbon whiskey followed by a shot of pickle juice as a chaser. As he nostalgically tells YouTube channel Awesome Dreams, "the rest is history."

Cunningham went on to introduce the pairing to more and more customers, and the demand grew so much that he decided to charge an extra dollar per shot, just for the addition of pickle brine. After that, the mixture spread like wildfire, with bars across the world from New York to California and China to Amsterdam adding "pickleback" to their menus.

THE PICKLEBACK'S UNCLEAR ORIGIN

Two shot glasses topped with small pickles.

Neil Conway, flickr // CC BY 2.0

Sure, Cunningham may have named it the pickleback shot, but after reviewing mixed reports, it appears pickle juice as a chaser is hardly novel. In Texas, for example, pickle brine was paired with tequila well before Cunningham's discovery, according to Men’s Journal. And in Russia, pickles have long been used to follow vodka shots, according to an NPR report on traditional Russian cuisine.

Unfortunately, no true, Britannica-approved record of the pickleback's origin exists, like so many do for other popular drinks, from the Manhattan to the Gin Rickey; it's internet hearsay—and in this case, Cunningham's tale is on top.

SO, WHY PICKLES?

Not sold yet? Sure, a pickle's most common companion is a sandwich, but the salty snack and its brine have terrific taste-masking powers.

"People who don't like the taste of whiskey love taking picklebacks because they completely cut the taste, which makes the shots very easy to drink," Lewis told Mental Floss. "Plus, they add a bit of salt, which blends nicely with the smooth flavor of Jameson."

Beyond taste masking, pickle juice is also a commonly used hangover cure, with the idea being that the salty brine will replenish electrolytes and reduce cramping. In fact, after a famed NFL "pickle juice game" in 2000, during which the Philadelphia Eagles destroyed the Dallas Cowboys in 109 degree weather (with the Eagles crediting their trainer for recommending they drink the sour juice throughout the game), studies have seemed to confirm that drinks with a vinegary base like pickle juice can help reduce or relieve muscle cramping.

WAYS TO PARTAKE

While core pickleback ingredients always involve, well, pickles, each bar tends to have a signature style. For example, Lewis swears by Crocodile Lounge's mix of pickle brine and Jameson; it pairs perfectly with the bar's free savory pizza served with each drink.

For Cunningham, the "Pickleback OG," it's Old Crow and brine from McClure's pickles. And on the more daring side, rather than doing a chaser shot of pickle juice, Café Sam of Pittsburgh mixes jalapeños, homemade pickle juice, and gin together for a "hot and sour martini."

If pickles and whiskey aren't up your alley, you can still get in on the pickle-liquor movement with one of the newer adaptations, including a "beet pickleback" or—gulp!—the pickled-egg and Jägermeister shot, also known as an Eggermeister.

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