LA Whiskey Society tastes and reviews "medicinal" whiskey from Prohibition

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I was kind of surprised at the high ratings. I was expecting prohibition-era bottlings to be whatever they could get away with, given the reduced competition for legal alcohol, but there still seems to have been some quality out there.


From 1920 to 1933, the only way to drink whiskey in America was to get a doctor’s prescription…

Nonsense. That was the only legal way.


First off: what a very cool tasting opportunity.

Second: “the only way to drink whiskey in America was to get a doctor’s prescription”? Close, as carnival barkers of the Prohibition era called, but no cigar.

Setting aside the illicit booze of the time, there were numerous legal ways to drink alcohol during Prohibition. Medicinal alcohol (including whiskey, rum, brandy, and fortified wines) was only one venue. Any alcohol purchased before January 16th, 1920 was also legal to own and drink in one’s home. Cocktails per se were not even illegal. In fact, Americans were allowed two homes — one in the city and one in the country. Shifting booze between one and the other was, however, forbidden. Rural districts were allowed to ferment apple cider very early on during Prohibition. Catholics and Jews were allowed a dispensation for “sacramental” wine. The frauds that particular exemption spawned were breathtaking.

Some medical whiskey (spiritus frumenti or spiritus fermenti in apothecary Latin) was genuine, bonded, overproof stuff — just as good as you’d expect. Some, however, were blends of industrial alcohol flavored and colored to resemble whiskey using creosote, rye or bourbon ethers, peach essences, carob extracts, oak sawdust, Cognac oil, cassia, grains of paradise, copper sulfate, caramel, syrup of raisins, vinegar, glycerine, etc.

Any example of Prohibition-era spirits must be approached with the idea that’s what’s in the bottle may be genuine…or it may be compounded spirits typical of the era. Shoot, it may even be a modern counterfeit in a period bottle, a consideration to which wine collectors are hip, but which rarely seems to occur to spirits collectors. Ever wonder what happens to those empty vintage bottles offered for sale online? That’s not saying anything about these particular bottles, just a general aviso to would-be collectors of vintage spirits, whether they’re medicinal or not.

Source: Lost Recipes of Prohibition by, oh, hey: me.


Indeed, this is perhaps one of my all time favourite posts here. I have always wondered about the tasting notes of early spirits, and I love the attention to detail in the ratings and reviews. The beautifully pristine photographs of each bottle are a bonus treat ~ like time travel! A favourite quote of mine:

But before Prohibition, the US had thousands of distilleries! 183 in Kentucky alone. (When the Bottled-in-Bond act took effect in 1896, the nationwide count was reportedly over eight thousand). Each distillery produced many, many different brands.

I am endlessly fascinated by vintage bottles that still appear with their paper labels affixed, and the fact that there were thousands of producers with many different brands opens up a Pandora’s Box of vintage graphic design.

If I could indulge in some of my own anecdotes, another way to get your daily dose of Whiskey was via a rum-running schooner from Canadian distillery. In Vancouver, there was the BC Distillery (New Westminster), and in the later years of prohibition, UDL based in Baltimore established UDL Vancouver, I think around 1927. I wrote a couple blog posts about it here and here. These bottles still show up marked UDL Vancouver in flea markets and ebay shops all across America, though without the labels, I can never be certain which bottles are prohibition era and which are post-prohibition.

I also wrote about the man behind a clever line of bitters and medicinal cocktails named Daniel Joseph Kennedy, but do not mistake him for the OTHER Joseph Kennedy - Daniel Okrent first clarified that in Last Call. DJ Kennedy came up from St Joseph, Missouri, through Shaunavon, Saskatchewan, and then to Vancouver just in time for British Columbia’s provincial prohibition. By the time British Columbia repealed their prohibition, American prohibition became the real the cash cow. Read more in chapter 2 of Vancouver Confidential.

And finally, on somewhat of a related note, collector Bob Kay has a list of prohibition near beer brands that sprung up across the land in the early days of prohibition. It’s a hard link to Google, so here’s that link as well. Since near beers would never survived more than a few years, we will likely never know what any of those tasted like, unless we find an insider’s tasting journal from a century ago, or we perfect the time traveling machine!

I’m utterly fascinated by these brands. Where does one even start collecting bottles like this? Antique shows? eBay? I’ve been antiquing since I was a kid, and don’t think I’ve ever seen unopened bottles of vintage spirits. The prices on these must be outrageous.

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