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Effects of Prohibition On Taste and Drinks

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@alcoholreviews
alcoholreviews started a discussion

I've written a piece re: the effects of Prohibition on the American palate: thesmartset.com/article/…

I'm curious to hear whether folks think I got it right, and also whether there were similar effects in the UK and other countries that went dry.

Cheers!

13 years ago

15 replies

@fhertz
fhertz replied

i don't know... are you sure we haven't always had a market for cheap sugary alcohol? i'd've thought as soon as prohibition was over, those with the means to do so went right back to drinking the good stuff. anyway, i liked the article. prohibition's such an interesting topic. the stuff you should know guys did a great podcast on it a little while back.

13 years ago 0

@alcoholreviews

@f.hertz

Yes, good point about those with the means. They likely hit the Scotch when it began floating back into the U.S.

Cheap alcohol, for sure, goes all the way back to the earliest days of the Republic, for sure. But come 1820 or so, sweet rum was replaced by white lightning as the hooch of choice, and white lightning isn't especially sweet!

13 years ago 0

@dbk
dbk replied

There might be some merit to your argument, @alcoholreviews, but you penned a real howler, too. Your recurring pot-shots at Canadian whisky were unfortunate, but the claim that "desperate American drinkers were in no position to choose, and unscrupulous Canadians made a killing selling them thin, dull whiskey" was flat-out bizarre. In spite of the portrait of the shameless Canadian distiller that you paint, Americans were involved in distilling Canadian whisky—Guy Beam ran a Canadian distillery for the American Medicinal Spirits Company (owned by the Wathens)—the “thin, dull whiskey” that Americans drank was usually thinned and dulled on the American side of the border by their American “importers”, bootleg Scotch whisky was also brought in and often received the same terrible treatment, illegal basement operations were distilling “crummy” moonshine and whiskey all over the US, and those that “made a killing selling” the stuff were as often (or more so) the very same Americans running the whisky over the border to begin with. This is not to suggest that some Canadians didn’t profit from the whole affair, but the insinuation that it was solely the product of Canadian scheming is preposterous.

Canadian whisky aside, I’m not really convinced of your argument. It’s really an invocation of the classic “following history” way of thinking about cultural evolution: we do as our forefathers did, and so forth for all eternity. I don’t believe the evidence supports this, in anecdote or in real data. Take the rise of “cargo cults”, where individuals dropped their widely held, long-standing, and wholly entrenched religious beliefs over extraordinarily short stretches of time (e.g., a few years) in favor of new ones. Or the fact that I grew up as a teetotaler until I was twenty-five, in a family where a bottle of beer or wine may have been consumed once a year; at thirty-three, I now drink whisky daily, and have amassed a ridiculous collection in just over a year. Finally, recent research from Japan shows that you can experimentally change aspects of people’s cultural beliefs by changing the way people interact.

My point is just to say that I think this kind of argument is appealing, but isn’t actually correct. There is wonderful whiskey being made in the US, and great Canadian whiskey coming over the border too (see reviews of Forty Creek’s Confederation Oak Reserve, WhistlePig, or Caribou Crossing). That everyone isn’t running out to drink it may have something to do with Prohibition, but that was a long time ago by the standards of cultural change, and I suspect the real answer lies somewhere else.

13 years ago 1Who liked this?

@alcoholreviews

@dbk

Of course there were bootleggers making bad crap in the U.S. I didn't say otherwise, my friend.

That Americans have been flocking to microbrews and other good drinks over the past 25-30 years aligns with your argument---that changes in behavior can come quickly. Prohibition ended in 1933; microbrewing began 40 years later. That's not a long time. (The Irish, I understand, have taken to Coors Light in the past 20 years with gusto!)

But let's not act as if each generation wholly invents its own eating and drinking habits. Americans still eat lots of canned food and boxed food, a dietary change that they picked up in the early 20th century. They are moving away from this, but they're still doing it.

13 years ago 0

@dbk
dbk replied

Fair enough, @alcoholreviews, but that "they're still doing it" is not evidence that the "dietary change that they picked up in the early 20th century" continues to be the cause of it. Once they didn't, then they did, and at some point they may not again. That Prohibition introduced the average American to bad whiskey doesn't mean that they couldn't run from the stuff as fast as they could find a better alternative. They just haven't done so.

13 years ago 0

@alcoholreviews

@dbk So, Why does Seagram's 7 continue to be sold in such large quantities in the U.S.? Is it because it provides such great flavor for the price?

That people don't switch, that they often keep on the food/drink habits bequeathed by the previous generation or two is inarguable. Like religion and political beliefs, food and drink tendencies get passed down.

Why folks keep doing it is an interesting question. Different folks likely have different reasons. Why did I go for a bottle of Seagram's 7 when I could have gotten something better at the same price point? I didn't know any better. I think that's the case with lots of folks.

13 years ago 0

@alcoholreviews

@dbk While I'm at it--what do you think are the top 5 Canadian whiskies?

You mentioned Forty Creek’s Confederation Oak Reserve, WhistlePig, and Caribou Crossing. Are those in the top five? Is there another you'd add?

Cheers!

13 years ago 0

@dbk
dbk replied

@alcoholreviews, why "culture" changes has puzzled social scientists for well over a century. Because many things seem not to change, or not much (e.g., religion), researchers often attribute change—or lack thereof—to cultural "inertia": the concept that, once things started moving in a particular direction, they would continue to do so until something significant interrupts this movement. This, for instance, has been invoked to explain the reliable finding that homicide rates (and violence in general) are reliably higher in the southern US states than in the northern ones: the different agricultural and settlement histories of the south vs. the north established different cultures, the southern one representing a "culture of honor" where one does not take lightly to insult or threat. Cultural inertia is the hypothesis that you invoke in your article.

An alternative to the cultural inertia hypothesis is that there are structures currently maintaining (or changing) the cultural phenomena under study. Taking southern vs. northern US violence again, it turns out that income inequality is significantly larger in the south than it is in the north. If you were to correlate homicie rates with income inequality across all US states, you would find a very strong, positive association. After this, there is no statistical effect of south vs. north remaining, suggesting that the differences between states is the consequence of current effects, not historical ones. (As it happens, computing the analagous statistics for Canada yields the same relationship between homicide and inequality, such that Canda and the US seem to differ culturally with regard to violence only to the degree that they differ in income inequality.)

There are numerous ways to explain the fact that you and many others drink terrible whisky on occasion. I am not for one second suggesting that Prohibition doesn't explain why your father drank the stuff, or why Canadian whisky became established in the US in the first place, but it does not follow that you continue to drink it just because of the lingering effects of Prohibition. It may just be that people haven't been properly incentivized to try something better or, more to the point, people are currently being incentivized to continue drinking the same swill. If people are capable of changing their religious and moral beliefs (something people do constantly without realizing it), they are certainly capable of changing their tune about whiskey.

To answer your other question, I am growing more and more fond of Canadian whisky, but am not quite in the position of constructing a list of the five best Canadian whiskies out there. Reviewers, however, have said great things about the three that I listed previously, as well as Crown Royal Cask No. 16, Wiser's 18 year-old and Wiser's Legacy, and Alberta Premium 25 year-old, among others. A great resource is Malt Maniac Davin de Kergommeaux's Canadian whisky website (www.canadianwhisky.org). In fact, he's just published his awards list for the year (canadianwhisky.org/news-views/…). Cheers!

13 years ago 0

@alcoholreviews

@dbk Are you an academic? You write well of history and its practice.

I guess you could say I staked out an insitutionalist (or neoinstitutionalist) positionb. Govt action create policies, that affect behavior, and though the govt policies changed, there's a bit of path dependency.

13 years ago 0

@dbk
dbk replied

Yes, you hit on it exactly: I'm an academic. Hence the nigh pedantic levels of detail in a "comment" box. I study social behavior, and some of that work touches on cultural differences. I'm guessing by your writing (and by publishng in a University magazine) that a similar story applies to you?

13 years ago 0

@quirkzoo
quirkzoo replied

@alcoholreviews I have to disagree with your fundamental thesis that the "simple" answer is prohibition. I think instead what we are seeing is the effect of 21st century consumerism which is all about maximing profit. The reason I think we cannot single out prohibition as the main cause of low quality alcohol being popular is because we can see the same trend in a variety of different consumer goods that did not experience similar "prohibitions". Pre-packaged, processed, flavorless food is the best example. There was no ban of food that made us acquire a (non-)taste for it, instead consumers chose to purchase something that was cheaper which allowed us to buy more stuff. This is especially true of the meat industry (at least in the US). By and large meat products are much more bland (or much more artificially flavored and filled) then they were one or two generations ago. Again this trend is driven by the desire for "cheap" meat at the expense of flavor (Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall talks a lot about this in his River Cottage Meat book). I also believe the same could be said for most of consumer electronics and appliances.

I fully recognize that the tastes acquired by society during prohibition likely plays a role in current trends but to single out prohibition as the "simple" answer does not properly take into account the larger cultural trends at play here.

As an aside I am also very grateful that there is an emerging trend away from such consumerism. We have seen that more is not necessarily better and many consumer patterns are beginning to change for the better.

13 years ago 0

@alcoholreviews

@dbk Yep---PhD in politics at NYU; full-time researcher at the Library of Congress. You can get a view of me at alcoholreviews.com/wp/ Be sure you pour a tall one before you watch!

13 years ago 0

@alcoholreviews

@quirkzoo I agree with you. Mono-causality is inevitably wrong. I guess I was being a bit cheeky. Obviously, if for some weird reasons Seagram's 7 became outrageously pricey, say, $50 a bottle, there's no chance whatsoever that I would have drank it (nor my father).

But, I will say that I think that the American palate does tend toward lightly flavored alcoholic drinks, esp. in comparison with the drinks consumed in Western Europe (including the UK). And I do believe that this is due in great part to Prohibition.

13 years ago 0

@Victor
Victor replied

I think that taken from the standpoint of the individual making the drinking choices, choosing strongly flavored alcoholic drinks is an acquired taste. When the cultural environment has made that choice difficult either thourgh lack of supply or persecution of the choice, then individuals tend to choose what is available, in this case more modestly flavored alcoholic beverages or non-alcoholic beverages. I see useful points in all of the postings on this article, and in the article itself...and I am very happy to see the pendulum drifting back toward the appreciation of more flavorful beverages, worldwide.

13 years ago 2Who liked this?

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