The Surprising Truth about Whisky Sales During Prohibition

I was researching a totally different topic when I came across a very interesting February 1922 anti-alcohol, pro-prohibition article in Cosmopolitan magazine. I know what you are thinking — Cosmo? Yup. And it has a lot of the same silly articles that I’ve heard it has now. Anyway, Google books was kind enough to index the entire magazine.

First of all, it is OK to use the word “whisky” instead of “whiskey” when talking about American whiskey. I know this because both spellings were interchangeable until the 1920s when the massive smuggling of illegal Scotch started to change the usages. Since I am basing this blog entry on a February 1922 Cosmopolitan article on whisky sales I will use the spelling that they used.

Second, did you know that when the Volstead Act was passed (that’s Prohibition for those that did not take or do not remember your American History lessons) that there were 190,000,000,000 cases of whisky in American bonded warehouses? That is a lot of whisky. And since it was sitting in bonded warehouses, that meant that a lot of banks stood to lose their collateral if it all got axed and drained into the nearest river. So, politicians and businessmen worried about losing their good whisky and perhaps seeing a business opportunity, applied for withdrawal permits so that the whisky could be used for medicinal purposes. 75,000 such permits were granted, even though 4,000 permits would have sufficed. Now, I’m thinking to myself that I’ve never seen whiskey prescribed by any doc I know, but they also don’t use leaches much anymore. It was a different time.

If you were well connected during Prohibition there was no lack of good whisky. Withdrawal of bonded whisky actually increased four-fold during the first year of Prohibition from 1 million gallons per month to 4 million gallons per month. In fact, the illegal importation of scotch whisky put a bigger dent in the sale of this bonded whiskey during prohibition than the government.

The article goes on to describe what people did to feed their desire for alcohol and the loopholes that bootleggers used to keep the product flowing. Some turned to making and selling huge bottles of vanilla, ginger, rum, and rye flavoring extracts — except that for the rum and rye varieties they were the real thing. People drank hair tonics that came in large bottles and hundreds died drinking wood alcohol. Read the article. It is a great look into the past courtesy of Google Books. Search for the word “putrefy” and you will go straight to the first page of the article. It is great reading, if for no other reason than to set you straight on what was really going on during Prohibition. There are a lot of things that we think happened because we once saw it in a movie or read it in some recent marketing that just isn’t true.

February 1922 Cosmopolitan Magazine

See also, to track the usage of whisky and whiskey in Google’s Ngram viewer.


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