In his new book, The Prohibition Hangover, Washington, D.C. author Garrett Peck examines America’s long-term love/hate relationship with alcohol. The nation’s near-comical experiment in the 1920s as to whether it could exist without the sale of alcohol was, of course, answered with an overwhelming “Hell no.” Peck’s book presents an entertaining and well-documented study of how the country got to the point of Prohibition and takes a look at the terrible set of consequences that followed. Peck also offers his own conclusions regarding what needs to happen in order for Americans to start treating alcohol with respect—among them, lowering the legal drinking age to 18. Prior to his book-signing and discussion this afternoon at Foundry United Methodist Church, Peck spoke with The A.V. Club about booze, NASCAR, the D.C. area's top bar chefs.
The A.V. Club: How does a person research a book about American alcoholism? Lots of time in bars?
Garrett Peck: Yes. And a gazillion interviews. The approach I took was a journalistic one. So I made a list of what I wanted to research and whom I wanted to interview and just started going down the rabbit hole. I was fortunate—almost everyone said yes. Most people understood that I wanted to write a balanced book about alcohol, presenting both sides of the story.
AVC: Can you briefly explain how the country was actually able to pull off passing a law prohibiting alcohol consumption?
GP: To clarify, the 18th amendment prohibited the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol. Personal possession was never made illegal. You could still make it at home. The temperance movement lasted about a century in multiple parts. Ultimately, the Anti-Saloon League succeeded because of the Great War. There was a very strong anti-German mass hysteria. Anything German, such a beer, was viewed as un-American. By marginalizing German-Americans, and capitalizing on the fear that existed, they were able to get the Prohibition law passed.
AVC: How did people get around Prohibition?
GP: In so many different ways. The country was very naïve to believe that because it changed the law people would abide. Even with the laws in place, alcohol was easy to get. People could distill it at home or import it from Canada or Mexico or the Bahamas. There was so much money to be made. And so many loopholes. George Remus is an example of one man who greatly profited from the Prohibition’s loopholes. F. Scott Fitzgerald loosely based his character Gatsby on Remus’ life story. As a lawyer, he understood the loopholes in the Volstead Act. He bought up a bunch of cheap distilleries and pharmacies, then sold liquor to himself as “medicinal.” And, of course, he had the money to bribe the right people.
AVC: Are there any families today who are still reaping the benefits of the bootlegging time period?
GP: Well, certainly the organized crime families are still around. There has always been a myth that the Kennedys made their fortune in bootlegging. While Joseph Kennedy did make some money during this timeframe, he made his first fortune in stocks, and he made his second fortune in Hollywood.
AVC: How was Prohibition eventually repealed?
GP: Fundamentally it took the Stock Market Crash and the onset of the Great Depression. America was ready for a change, and we saw a complete shift in government, much like what happened in 2006 and 2008. Democrats took the Republican seats because the Democratic platform included Prohibition repeal. Thirteen years after passing the 18th Amendment, they changed the Constitution back—the only time the United States has done so. The taxes from liquor sales helped fuel many of FDR’s New Deal Programs.
AVC: Prohibition gave rise to some unexpected things. Can you explain the Prohibition’s relation to NASCAR?
GP: The moonshiners would send their product to market in souped-up cars with skilled drivers who needed to be able to outrun law enforcement if necessary. The drivers started meeting on weekends to race each other. In 1947, long after the Prohibition was repealed, the former bootleggers found legitimate jobs with the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing.
AVC: You describe America’s attitude toward youth drinking as prohibitionism and propose that we need to lower the drinking age to 18. What were your own underage experiences?
GP: At 18, I went to the Virginia Military Institute. In certain places, like the District, we could still drink at 18, but not in Virginia. The cadets frequented a local dive, Estelle’s in Virginia. She served chili and $1 beers—great woman. In 1988, the Virginia authorities raided the place and shut it down. It was such a shame. We still found ways to drink.
AVC: How have your personal tastes evolved over time?
GP: A lot of consumers drift over time. For me, I started with wine. Today I enjoy a good beer or whiskey. I swore off of rail drinks when I turned 40. No more crappy vodka or aristocrat gin. Life is too short for that. It’s worth the extra dollar.
AVC: In your book, you credit America with the invention of the cocktail and say, “Bartenders are practically chefs.”
GP: Yes! The cocktail was first mentioned in print in an 1806 New York publication. Americans mixed in flavors and sugars because the cheap distilled spirits were really gross. Today, there are a number of bar chefs, or culinary bartenders, in our area. They are the people who look to the kitchen for inspiration. They use egg whites, fresh lime, herbs, and they are making their own syrups.
AVC: Who would you say are the most talented bartenders in the area?
GP: I can name three off the top of my head: Todd Thrasher at PX in Alexandria is an award-winning mixologist; Derek Brown, a private bartender and beverage consultant, is opening up a bar called The Passenger soon; and Gina Chersevani of PS 7’s in Penn Quarter—my God, she is like the Italian cousin you wish you had.
AVC: When was your last really bad hangover?
GP: [Laughs.] The morning after the Repeal Day Ball in Georgetown. We had a lot of cocktails, hand-crafted by some of the nation’s best mixologists. I sat on my couch all day trying to recover with aspirin, and I thought, “This is why I don’t drink this way anymore.”