Think of the Prohibition and you’ll probably think of jazz music, speakeasies, gangsters, and Tommy guns. It’s a world immortalised in films like The Roaring Twenties and a novels like The Great Gatsby. And what were they drinking? Gin mainly, though not particularly good gin.

The Roaring Twenties film poster - gin and prohibition

So what is it with gin and Prohibition?

The National Prohibition Act came into force in the United States in 1920. Overnight, the country’s brewing, distilling, and wine industries were, with a few exceptions for medicinal purposes, closed down. Legal alcohol production would not resume on any scale until 1933.

But people still wanted a drink. At one point it was estimated that there were over 32, 000 speakeasies in New York City alone. So what are they going to sell? Beer takes up a lot of space. It’s not easy to illegally brew and transport lots of beer without the cops noticing. Same with wine. Whisky and brandy need maturing. What you need is something that can be made cheaply and easily from almost anything. The answer was gin. 


Al Capone - prohibition and gin

Al Capone – liked drinking gin

Gin is easy to produce

Gin was easy and quick to produce illegally. Unlike dark spirits like whisky, gin does not require a lengthy ageing process. All you need is alcohol, which can be distilled from pretty much anything, potatoes, grain, even milk. Bootleggers could make it quickly and sell it almost immediately. This made it ideal for the fast-paced, underground market of Prohibition. 

The basic ingredients needed to make gin—alcohol, water, and flavourings (typically juniper berries and other botanicals)—were relatively simple to obtain. This accessibility allowed many illicit operators to produce and distribute gin. Much of production was on an ad hoc basis, hence the term bathtub gin, which would be made from filling a container, like a bathtub, with alcohol, throwing in some flavourings and voila! You had some gin. 

Bootleggers would also try to make illicit versions of whisky, rum and bourbon by adding caramel, toffee, spices and other flavourings to a base of alcohol. But these were far less convincing than a well-made bathtub gin. 

The Bronx - Prohibition cocktails

The Bronx (left)

What was this gin like?

Let’s not get carried away though. However carefully your Prohibition gin was crafted, it would have been a world away from the sort of London dry gin that people were drinking in England. Furthermore, the alcohol might well be badly distilled and contain poisonous compounds like methanol. Rather than juniper and citrus, your gin could be pepped up with sulphuric. Mmm, tangy!

Gin during Prohibition would have tasted awful if you were lucky, and would have killed you if you weren’t. So people drank heavily sweetened cocktails often made with fruit juice that disguised the taste of the illicit gin. 

Al Capone’s favourite cocktail was a Southside, a mixture of gin, lemon, sugar and mint. Another popular 1920s cocktail was the Bronx made with orange juice, sweet vermouth and gin. Thankfully these probably taste a lot better than they did during Prohibition thanks to the safe, legal production of alcohol. Let’s drink to that!