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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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10 Things You Might Not Know About Wine
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by Tilar J. Mazzeo

Between the vine and the liquor store, plenty of secrets are submerged in your favorite bottle of vino. Here, the author of Back Lane Wineries of Sonoma spills some of the best.

1. DIGITAL EYES ARE EVERYWHERE IN VINEYARDS.

Certain premium estates in Bordeaux and Napa are beginning to look a little more like an army base—or an Amazon.com warehouse. They’re using drones, optical scanners, and heat-sensing satellites to keep a digital eye on things. Some airborne drones collect data that helps winemakers decide on the optimal time to harvest and evaluate where they can use less fertilizer. Others rove through the vineyard rows, where they may soon be able to take over pruning. Of course, these are major investments. At $68,000 a pop, the Scancopter 450 is about twice as costly as a 1941 Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon!

2. THERE ARE ALSO LOTS OF COW SKULLS.

They’re not everywhere, but biodynamic farming techniques are on the rise among vintners who don’t want to rely on chemicals, and this is one trick they’ve been known to use to combat plant diseases and improve soil PH. It’s called Preparation No. 505, and it involves taking a cow’s skull (or a sheep’s or a goat’s), stuffing it with finely ground oak chips, and burying it in a wet spot for a season or two before adding it to the vineyard compost.

3. FEROCIOUS FOLIAGE IS A VINTNER’S FRIEND.

The mustard flowers blooming between vineyard rows aren’t just for romance. Glucosinolates in plants like radishes and mustard give them their spicy bite, and through the wonders of organic chemistry, those glucosinolates also double as powerful pesticides. Winemakers use them to combat nematodes—tiny worms that can destroy grape crops.

4. WHAT A CANARY IS TO A COAL MINE, ROSES ARE TO A VINEYARD.

Vintners plant roses among their vines because they get sick before anything else in the field. If there’s mildew in the air, it will infect the roses first and give a winemaker a heads-up that it’s time to spray.

5. VINTNERS EXPLOIT THE FOOD CHAIN.

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Small birds like blackbirds and starlings can clear out 20 percent of a crop in no time. But you know what eats little birds? Big birds. Falconry programs are on the rise in vineyards from California to New Zealand. Researchers have found that raptors eat a bird or two a day (along with a proportion of field mice and other critters) and cost only about as much to maintain as your average house cat.

6. THE BIG PROBLEMS IN TASTING ROOMS ARE VERY SMALL.

Winemakers are constantly seeking ways to manage the swarms of Drosophila melanogaster that routinely gather around the dump buckets in their swanky showrooms. You know these pests as fruit flies, and some vintners in California are exploring ways to use carnivorous plants to tackle the problem without pesticides. Butterworts, sundews, and pitcher plants all have sweet-sounding names, but the bugeating predators make for terrific fruit fly assassins, and you’ll see them decorating tasting rooms across wine country.

7. WINE NEEDS CLEANING.

Winemaking produces hard-to-remove sediments. Filters can catch most of the debris, but winemakers must add “fining agents” to remove any suspended solids that sneak by. Until it was banned in the 1990s, many European vintners used powdered ox blood to clean their wines. Today, they use diatomaceous earth (the fossilized remains of hard-shelled algae), Isinglass (a collagen made from fish swim bladders), and sometimes bentonite (volcanic clay). Irish moss and egg whites are also fine wine cleaners.

8. ATOMS HAVE ALL THE ANSWERS.

About 5 percent of the premium wine sold for cellaring doesn’t contain what the label promises. So how do top-shelf buyers avoid plunking down serious cash on a bottle of something bunk? Most elite wine brokerages, auction houses, and collectors use atomic dating to detect fraud. By measuring trace radioactive carbon in the wine, most bottles can be dated to within a year or two of the vintage.

9. FINE WINES GET MRIs.

Even with atomic dating, there are certain perils involved in buying a $20,000 bottle of wine. Leaving a case in the hot trunk of your car is enough to ruin it, so imagine what can happen over a couple of decades if a wine isn’t kept in the proper conditions. Back in 2002, a chemistry professor at University of California at Davis patented a technique that uses MRI technology to diagnose the condition of vintage wines. Not planning any $20,000 wine purchases? This is still good news for the consumer. This technique may soon be used at airport security, meaning you’ll be able to carry on your booze.

10. THERE’S A TRICK TO AGING YOUR WINE.

If you end up with a bottle of plonk, Chinese scientists have developed a handy solution. Zapping a young wine with electricity makes it taste like something you’ve cellar aged. Scientists aren’t quite sure how it happens yet, but it seems that running your wine for precisely three minutes through an electric field changes the esters, proteins, and aldehydes and can “age” a wine instantly.

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Why Do People Drink Mint Juleps at the Kentucky Derby?
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Whether you plan to enjoy the race from Churchill Downs or don an elaborate hat in the comfort of your own home, if you're watching the Kentucky Derby, you may find yourself sipping on a refreshing mint julep this weekend. But, why?

The drink—a cocktail traditionally composed of bourbon, sugar, water, and mint—has been a Kentucky favorite since long before Churchill Downs came into play. In fact, in 1816, silver julep cups were given as prizes at Kentucky county fairs (a change from the stuffed animals they offer today). And before that, a “julep” was considered medicinal, “prescribed” for stomach problems and sore throats.

Though mint juleps have likely been enjoyed at the Kentucky Derby since the beginning—legend has it that founder Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., planted mint for cocktails when he founded the track in 1875—the cocktail wasn’t declared the “official” Derby drink until 1938.

It was just a few years ago that the Derby switched to a more “authentic” version of the mint julep. For almost two decades, the 120,000 mint juleps served at the races were made with Early Times. Based on the aging process, Early Times isn’t considered bourbon (just “Kentucky whisky”) in the U.S. In 2015, they switched to Old Forester, which is also owned by the Brown-Forman Corporation.

Even with the switch to “real” bourbon, what most revelers actually get is the Old Forester Ready-to-Serve Cocktail mix, not a handcrafted mint julep—unless you’re willing to pony up $1000. For the past 13 years, Brown-Forman has served a special version of the drink made with Woodford Reserve small batch bourbon. It’ll set you back a grand, but hey, you get to keep the pewter cup—and proceeds benefit the Jennifer Lawrence Arts Fund (yes, that Jennifer Lawrence). In 2016, the Oscar-winning actress—and Louisville native—founded the organization "to assist and empower organizations that fulfill children's needs and drives art access to positively impact the lives of young people."

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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