Intro: The Adventures of John Barleycorn and his Uncle Sam

“I’ve had more friends in private, and more foes in public, than any other man in America.”

The New York Daily News published that quote in 1920, on the eve of Prohibition. They are the imagined last words of “John Barleycorn,” the personification of drink, and they could not be more apt.[i] The United States has always had that kind of bipolar relationship with alcohol, simultaneously reveling in it and demonizing it. Much of American history took place in a barroom, and even today, drinking is ingrained in our social, political and cultural lives. Quoting the 19th Century British sailor/writer Frederick Marryat:

“They say that the British cannot fix anything properly without a dinner, but I’m sure the Americans can fix nothing without a drink. If you meet, you drink; if you part, you drink; if you make acquaintance, you drink; if you close a bargain, you drink; they quarrel in their drink, and they make it up with a drink. They drink, because it is hot; they drink, because it is cold. If successful in elections, they drink and rejoice; if not, they drink and swear.”[ii]

And yet this central societal ritual has neon-bright limits. Drinking is acceptable, and even expected. Being drunk? Well, maybe if you’re still in college. The colonial Puritans believed that drink came from God, but drunkenness came from the Devil.[iii] It’s a bizarre juxtaposition, but an understandable one, given the context: a little alcohol killed the bacteria in the water. That initial premise, though—drink good, drunk bad—has gone on to color our relationship to alcohol for 400 years, often with the same religious phrasing employed by those Puritans. Juggling sin and guilt is an American pastime, and alcohol is Exhibit A. Add a healthy reformist streak (and a little classism and anti-immigrant fervor) to that religious moralizing and you have quite the cultural counterbalance to our spirituous inclinations.

From the earliest colonial times, we have attempted to bridge this great divide by legislating it. Our early alcohol laws were simple controls on the number of drinking establishments and on the public drunkenness they sometimes engendered. But from that humble beginning, laws relating to the production, purveyance, and consumption of alcohol have expanded in both scope and complexity, contorted by our strange cultural duality.

Economics, of course, has also played a key role in this evolution. Rum and whiskey were important commodities in the early Republic, providing the producers of frontier grain and Caribbean sugar cane with a shelf-stable, easily transportable product for the east coast population centers. And while those distribution constraints have faded, the economic power of booze is perhaps as strong today as it has ever been, with beer, wine, cider and spirits drawing tourists, supplying jobs, and often serving as brand ambassadors for their region through their labels and marketing. According to the TTB, in 2007 the industry provided roughly four million jobs and generated $400 billion in economic activity, numbers which can only have increased in the decade since.[iv] And that economic power has translated into government tax dollars. British taxation of rum imports played a role in starting the Revolution, but that didn’t stop (teetotaler) Alexander Hamilton from attempting to levy a tax on spirits in 1791—the first tax on any domestically produced commodity.[v] The famous-but-actually-tiny Whiskey Rebellion arose, and soon thereafter the tax disappeared with the election of the anti-tax Thomas Jefferson, but whenever the nation found itself in financial straits, alcohol was the revenue source of choice.

Taxation of spirits reappeared in 1813, during the War of 1812, and by the beginning of the 20th century taxes on alcohol accounted for nearly 30% of federal revenue, which is kind of crazy to think about.[vi] That would change in 1913, with the adoption of the 16th Amendment allowing for the collection of an income tax (which, incidentally, was a prerequisite for Prohibition, since the government could now afford to lose that boozy revenue). Nevertheless, alcoholic beverages are still a serious source of income for the government. In 2015, federal revenues from alcohol were a little over $7 billion. Revenues for state and local governments total slightly less than that—around $5 to $6 billion per year, with wide variation between the states.[vii]

With government recognizing the economic impact of alcohol and its role in public revenues, the story of liquor law today is often one of rolling back old restrictions—albeit very incrementally—to help the industry expand. As always with alcohol, cultural elements are at play here, too. Liberalization of liquor laws is designed to benefit the top end of the market—the high-end brand names and the manicured-yet-somehow-also-adventurous small- and medium-sized producers under the umbrella of “craft”. The image of the drinker has changed remarkably in the last century, from that of the slovenly, lower class immigrant spending his paycheck at the saloon on a Saturday night, to the white-collar whiskey connoisseur, the Sex and the City Cosmo, or the hipster with a flight of IPAs. These brands of drinker, and the industry that supports them, seem to offer all the economic benefits of alcohol production with few of the societal downsides, and many states are lining up to court them.

But the negative side effects of alcohol consumption, of course, haven’t gone anywhere. The CDC estimates that excessive drinking kills about 88,000 Americans each year, and causes nearly $250 billion in economic losses.[viii] With its integral role in our history and culture, we clearly value alcohol enough to shoulder some cost. Even if we didn’t, our “Noble Experiment” of Prohibition demonstrated what would happen if we tried to do away with it entirely. Instead, governments face the unenviable task of promoting “good” drinking, and discouraging bad. Our laws, many a legacy from the post-Prohibition era, are a convoluted morass of permissions and restrictions, continually evolving in an attempt to match our complex, ever-changing attitude towards our favorite drug.

This site will chronicle those laws. It is intended for anyone with even a passing interest in the subject, though I hope those more in the know will also find it valuable. Most articles will be a little less dense than this one, but I do intend to adhere to a higher research standard than often found on this subject, especially online.[ix]

A few obligatory sentences about the author. After a decade working in bars and breweries, I now work in local government (though not in any booze-regulating capacity). I believe in reasonable governmental regulation for community benefit, and in a well-stocked home bar. I carry no specific agenda, though I imagine that my generally positive personal relationship with alcohol will sometimes peek through. I am fascinated by government and the law, and by the business of booze. I hope you find my exploration of their intermingling enlightening, entertaining, or even both. Cheers!

 

[i] Susan Cheever, “Drinking in America”, pg. 141

[ii] https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/4099543.Frederick_Marryat. Also quoted in the Ken Burns documentary Prohibition.

[iii] Cheever pg. 32

[iv] TTB President’s Budget Submission, FY 2013, pg. 6. https://www.treasury.gov/about/budget-performance/Documents/9%20-%20FY%202013%20TTB%20CJ.pdf

[v] Cheever pg. 67; also Michael Hoover, “The Whiskey Rebellion”, https://www.ttb.gov/public_info/whisky_rebellion.shtml#8

[vi] Cheever pg. 148

[vii] https://blog.turbotax.intuit.com/taxes-101/how-much-is-the-government-making-off-of-alcohol-3418/

[viii] Mostly from “losses in workplace productivity”, which must be a challenging variable to quantify, but certainly a necessary one. See https://www.cdc.gov/features/costsofdrinking/index.html and https://www.cdc.gov/features/alcohol-deaths/index.html

[ix] Including citations! Hooray citations!

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