Amid the flurry of announcements from governments at all levels during the ramp-up to COVID-19 came the news from New York’s State Liquor Authority that bars and restaurants would be allowed to serve cocktails to go. To go! It was a fun story amidst all the drama: you could get a drink, support your favorite bar, and enjoy the novelty of doing something that hasn’t been allowed in our lifetimes.
The bars and restaurants were all being forced to close their dining rooms for the foreseeable future, of course, and this was one of many efforts to help them stay afloat while the virus was in town. In our history we’ve changed our liquor laws in response to a crisis several times, but it’s been a while, which makes this stand out. Here’s the biggest examples I can think of, from the Revolution to Corona:
1. 1790-1865: (Tax) Money, Money, Money
I’ve written about this one before, but for our first 70 years or so, we weren’t taxing much, so we didn’t have the money to handle a crisis. Our favorite kind of crisis was war, of course, and when one started we turned to booze for the money to get through it. We did this three times: first there was the Whiskey Tax in 1790, which was designed to help pay back Revolutionary War debts and led to the Whiskey Rebellion. That tax was abolished by Thomas Jefferson, but ten years later we brought it back during the War of 1812. When that war ended we got rid of it again until the Civil War. By that time government was growing and needed regular, non-crisis funding, so when the fighting stopped, we kept the tax.
2. 1917-19, 41-45: Wartime Booze Gets Industrial
When the next major war came, it had a very different impact on the booze business. Fighting had become an industrial exercise, and pure, high-strength ethanol was an important component in everything from munitions to antiseptic to synthetic rubber. During WWI the government passed national wartime Prohibition, saving grain for bread and making all the distilleries switch to industrial alcohol. Bars closed up as their young male clientele headed overseas to fight. The crisis brought the whole industry to a screeching halt. (Incidentally, wartime prohibition helped make actual Prohibition more palatable, and contributed to the quick passage of the 18th Amendment. When national Prohibition started in early 1920, nothing actually changed: we’d already been living with it for over two years.)
Twenty years later, WWII also left its mark on beverage alcohol. There wasn’t any prohibition, but distilleries were again required to make industrial ethanol instead of whiskey, and grain was again being diverted for other needs (I’d say “higher purposes” but hey, it depends how you want to define “high”). American drinking, though, actually increased during the course of the war (it was still well below pre-Prohibition levels). With less domestic booze to be had and European liquors unavailable, the war actually gave rum a bit of a moment.
3. 1932: “A good time for a beer”
Just as one crisis helped usher Prohibition in, another helped usher it out. The Noble Experiment was already going poorly when the stock market crashed in 1929, but the Great Depression put the nail in the coffin. FDR campaigned for president in 1932 with the promise of getting the alcohol industry going again to create jobs and get boozy tax revenues back on the books. In his first month he signed the Cullen-Harrison act legalizing 3.2 beer with the famous quip, “I think this would be a good time for a beer.” Soon after, the 21st Amendment passed and Prohibition was officially over.
4. 2020: Booze is Essential
The day I heard that all non-essential businesses in New York were going to have to close, I put in a little delivery order from my local shop. I just assumed that a liquor store would be non-essential. Turns out, not so much! Quoting the Liquor Authority: “Under the Governor’s direction, the manufacture, distribution and sale of alcoholic beverages are deemed essential, thus not subject to the Governor’s ordered workforce reductions.” How far we’ve come, from illegal to essential. Liquor stores are not only remaining open, but longstanding laws are being set aside in states across the country in the interest of keeping the industry afloat. Partly this is changing mores, partly it’s some very successful lobbying on the part of the booze industry, and partly, well, it’s a natural response to a crisis that has most of us still healthy enough, but home, bored, and nervous. It’s a good time for a beer. Or a cocktail in a plastic cup.