History of Prohibtion in New Orleans

History of Prohibition In New Orleans

100 years ago, New Orleans was not too different from the city it is today. It was a free-wheeling port city where the locals knew how to have fun, and tourists from around the country would go to see Mardi Gras, hear some live music, and enjoy a boozy good time in its many drinking establishments.

 

But the Volstead Act of 1919 sought to end all that. Nationwide, all sales and production of alcoholic beverages were to be halted under penalty of law. Known as Prohibition, these dry years lasted from 1919 to 1933 (hence one of our brands name), but these new anti-alcohol laws proved to be unpopular and difficult to enforce.

 

In the early years of the 20s, New Orleans simply went about its old cultural habits as if nothing had changed. Thousands of locals were known to be making their own home-brewed wine and beer to meet demand. When the famous governor Huey P. Long was asked what he was doing about enforcing the ban on alcohol, he replied, “Not a damn thing”.

 

Grand old Creole restaurants like Antoine's, Commander's Palace and Galatoire's adapted by creating “secret” rooms or curtained booths where one could simply drink in private, and in the case of Tujague’s, their servers had small flasks of liquor concealed in their aprons that could be poured into your coffee cup. Similarly, many restaurants found a loophole in the Volstead act that still permitted the purchase and use of brandy, whiskey and wine in their kitchens for “legitimate culinary purposes”.

 

So, while local police ignored (or even drank in) obvious drinking establishments, federal dry agents soon descended on the Crescent City and began shuttering and padlocking its hundreds of saloons, nightclubs, distilleries and breweries.

 

But New Orleans being New Orleans, hundreds of speakeasies rapidly opened throughout the French Quarter to meet the demand of its thirsty populace. Some of these underground bars were upscale elegant affairs full of the finest imported booze, while others were simply a few old tables someone had set up in their basement serving headache-inducing rotgut. In any case, any resident or visitor in New Orleans, if they wanted a drink of alcohol, could easily find one if they set their mind to it.

 

One notorious Dry Fed was Izzy Einstein. Known for his prodigious arrest record and followed by the press, he toured the country as part of his investigations looking to find which cities were the easiest to find a drink in. The Big Easy won the competition: coming in first with a “score” of 35 seconds. Izzy arrived by train, and on the way to his hotel, asked his taxi driver where a man might find a drink. His driver simply offered him one from a bottle stashed under the back seat.

 

New Orleans soon became known as “the liquor capital of America” and its position as a port city made it uniquely situated to receive supplies from outside the country and then distribute them up the Mississippi and into the rest of the country.

 

Organized crime syndicates initially smuggled in rum from Cuba and Europe on fast sailing boats, while local authorities turned a blind eye. Ironically, instead of cutting down on crime and drunkenness, Prohibition only made it worse by increasing corruption and enhancing the power and profits of the Mafia throughout the 1920s.

 

The Feds did eventually become successful at cracking down on rum running into the city, but again this had unintended consequences. Instead of better-quality booze being brought in by legitimate international producers, moonshiners then filled the gap by distilling illicit liquor backwoods of dubious quality. Often this underground booze proved to be poisonous to its unlucky drinkers.

 

Around this time, Bourbon Street started to become the nightlife epicenter of New Orleans as we know it today. When the notorious old Storyville red light district was shut down in 1917, the madams, pimps, saloon keepers, jazz musicians and their patrons started migrating down a few blocks South to the French Quarter. They set up shop in the narrow side streets along Bourbon and the flourishing speakeasy economy paired nicely with live music and scantily clad ladies tempting inebriated customers.

 

In 1933, President Roosevelt ended Prohibition by signing the 21st Amendment into law and New Orleanians could legally purchase alcohol again. Not that it had stopped them in the past, but now they could do it without fear of legal retribution.

 

At exactly noon on April 13, 1933, sirens wailed, hotel bars reopened, speakeasies displayed their bottles in open windows, and the crowds cheered as reportedly 488,000 gallons of beer were consumed in a massive open-air celebration on Canal Street.

 

At NOLA Distillery, we like to celebrate our Big Easy heritage. And our Bourbons, Ryes, Gin and Vodka give a nod to the rum runners, bootleggers and speakeasy barkeeps of yesteryear. As the 1920s Mayor Martin Behrman once said, “You can make illegal, but you can’t make it unpopular.” So, who are we to argue?

 

 

Written by Gregory Goldblatt