Duff said: 2020: Back to the future

30 January, 2020

Philip Duff sits down 100 years after the start of American prohibition to ponder what may – or may not – have been learned

WELL, WELL, WELL, HERE WE ARE IN THE Twenties again (bet you’re already sick of hearing that one). The world is a very different place now than in 1920, not least because only the first fortnight or so of that decade was business as usual. On January 17 the US, the world’s largest alcohol market, went dry overnight. As well as being the most effective business incentive programme ever for America’s bootleggers, Prohibition helped all but kill off what in living memory at the time had been some of the world’s bestselling spirits categories, such as Irish whiskey and Dutch genever. Effectively banning an entire profession – bartending – gave the US, then world leaders in mixology, what author Robert Hess has referred to as a “collective lobotomy” that took the profession until the late 1980s to recover from. So, what have we learned? Alcohol was banned in the US because it really was being abused to deleterious levels; plus, the campaign to outlaw alcohol, much like the Brexit referendum and the 2016 election of Donald Trump, was mostly a rural affair, and by the time the fancy city folks realised their cocktails were at risk, it was too late. Lots of other places had bans too: Iceland banned beer from 1915 until 1989, and Belgium banned distilled spirits from 1919 until 1983 – unless you bought at least two litres, the logic being that true alcoholics couldn’t afford such a large purchase. The comparison to alcohol then is areas such as (legal) marijuana, vaping, and CBD now. Marijuana was, until recently, banned in most places except, famously, the Netherlands, where it has been decriminalised (but not legalised) since 1972. What have the results been? Well, apart from floods of red-eyed tourists, not a lot. Drug abuse is lower among the Dutch than many neighbouring countries, and apart from foreigners the general feeling is that only young people and – how to put this politely? – losers consume it regularly. There is no stylish cachet to smoking a joint after a dinner party in Amsterdam the way there may be in Islington or Brooklyn – quite the opposite. Vaping is a brave new frontier, but there seems to be no research on the long-term effects of the quite staggering amounts of nicotine one can ingest when fueled by an electronic cigarette as opposed to having to work your way through a packet of Camels. And CBD? It would seem to be a placeboenhancer, without a lot of nonplacebo effects one way or another, apart from lightening your wallet. The bigger picture in all of this is that governments can ban whatever they like, but when it comes to worldly pleasures, such bans are all but impossible to enforce. Take a look at the many Asian beach resorts situated in countries which cheerfully inform you on the landing card you must fill in that their policy is DEATH TO DRUG SMUGGLERS; yet you can as easily find cocaine and cannabis on the beaches of Bali as in Brighton or Barcelona. Research, regulation, taxation and controlled distribution are how to build a safe business around mood-enhancers, whether ethanol, THC, nicotine or CBD; in the end it’s only the difficulty of getting the voting public to choose logic over emotion.

Digital Edition

Drinks International digital edition is available ahead of the printed magazine. Don’t miss out, make sure you subscribe today to access the digital edition and all archived editions of Drinks International as part of your subscription.


La'Mel Clarke

Service isn’t servitude: the skill of hosting

La’Mel Clarke, front of house at London’s Seed Library, looks at the forgotten art of hosting and why it deserves the same respect as bartending.