For those of us who enjoy wine and spirits, it's sometimes hard to believe that alcohol was once banned in the United States. New York Times reporter Daniel Okrent does a marvelous job of telling the fascinating story of this failed experiment in Last Call- The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.
Okrent starts from the earliest strains of the prohibition movement and ends his tail at repeal. For any student of American political history and grassroots movements, it's fascinating to see how this cause took shape. One thing that may seem surprising to today's readers is the the political diversity of prohibition's advocates, from progressive reformers to religious conservatives to the Ku Klux Klan. This diverse and divergent group managed to make the Anti-Saloon League one of the most powerful forces in American politics for nearly two decades.
Once Prohibition actually passes, the story becomes less political history and more of what we think about when casually considering prohibition: the remarkable tales of bootlegging, speakeasies, medicinal alcohol scams, poisoned hooch and gangsters. Writing in an engaging, page-turning journalistic style, Okrent relays numerous fascinating tidbits such as the story of the notorious bootlegger Sam Bronfman, the growth of Walgreens through sales of medicinal alcohol and the grape bricks, sold by California wineries, which cautioned not to add yeast lest the grapes inadvertently be converted to illegal wine. And Okrent finally puts to rest the legend that Joseph P. Kennedy had anything to do with bootlegging (he didn't).
Okrent's book is a must read for anyone with an interest in prohibition or American twentieth century politics, but also for anyone who enjoys their liquor and can't imagine that it did happen here.
Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
Scribner, 2010 ($20-$30)