Alcohol in America

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There are many threads running through the fabric of the United States – a legendary commitment to personal freedom, a diverse history, a nation of cultures. But one of those threads, woven around the very backbone of America throughout the 20th century, is that of alcohol. Alcohol has been an indelible companion on the American journey.

‘The Noble Experiment’

“The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.”[1] With the opening words of the 21st Amendment (ratified December 1933), prohibition was struck down. Thirteen years after an assortment of social groups and political parties rallied under the banner of temperance to make the United States dry, the “noble experiment” came to an ignominious end.[2]

Almost as soon as the 18th Amendment went into effect, the mechanisms that would bring it down emerged from the shadows. On the one hand was organized crime, which took over the (now illicit) importation and distribution of alcohol on American soil. On the other hand was old-fashioned American ingenuity, as private citizens manufactured crude and cheap alternatives to alcohol in their own bathtubs (“bathtub gin”), in defiance of an increasingly unpopular law (for example, police were allowed to conduct warrantless searches of automobiles on the basis of probable cause that alcohol was being transported). An entire black market economy sprung up almost overnight, allowing gangsters like Al Capone and leaders of other crime syndicates across the country to bring the booming bootlegging industry, as well as a raft of corrupt law enforcement officials and figures, under their thumb – sometimes violently.

Indeed, none other than John D. Rockefeller, Jr. – at the time, the richest man in the United States – himself noted that, despite his initial support of prohibition and temperance, “[D]rinking generally has increased […] a vast army of lawbreakers has been recruited and financed on a colossal scale […] many of our best citizens, piqued at what they regarded as an infringement of their private rights, have openly and unabashedly disregarded the 18th Amendment […] respect for all law has been greatly lessened; crime has increased to an unprecedented degree.”[3]

Roughly 18 months after Rockefeller, a lifelong teetotaler, announced his support for the repeal of prohibition, Congress ratified the 21st Amendment.

‘An Effective and Uniform System for Controlling Liquor’

Even though private citizens would be happy to start drinking publicly again, the federal government wanted to be sensitive to the lingering distrust many Americans had toward the alcohol industry itself. There also existed the additional problem of organized crime groups not willing to cede their hard-won gains to a government that wanted to manage and control the flow of alcohol. And, lastly, there was the understanding that legal, regulated alcohol was a safer alternative than the dangerous concoctions of bathtub gin that desperate and thirsty citizens cooked up.

To that effect, provisions of the 21st Amendment outlawed the importation of alcohol into individual states, effectively letting each state decide whether they would become “wet” or “dry.” In 2013, returning a decision on another case, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals clarified the aim of the Amendment: “to allow states to maintain an effective and uniform system for controlling liquor by regulating its transportation, importation, and use.”[4] States, in turn, had the option of delegating that responsibility to their respective counties, while still retaining the power of oversight and regulation.

Notwithstanding the overwhelming support the 21st Amendment received, a number of states and counties opted to remain dry after ratification: Mississippi approved the sale and production of alcohol within its borders as late as 1966,[5] and as of 2012, there were still 200 “dry” counties in America.[6]

Regulating Alcohol

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Regulation is carried out through the issuance of licenses, which specify the locations and times of day where sales of alcohol can take place. Additionally, the federal government regulates alcohol through taxation; in 2007, it made $5.6 billion in alcohol tax revenues.[7] In theory, such controls not only provide a source of revenue for the government; they also discourage the uncontrolled production and consumption of alcohol.[8]

Enforcement of the rules regarding the production and sale of alcohol are carried out by two arms of the federal government:

  • The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which is responsible for the investigation and prevention of illegal alcohol production and trafficking
  • The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which is responsible for the collection of federal tax revenue


Despite the legal status alcohol enjoys today, there is still a market for bootlegged alcohol. The practice of “moonshining,” the illegal production of high-proof alcohol, the content of which is often beyond government-set safety limits (reminiscent in spirit of the bathtub gin of the prohibition era), remains popular in the rural areas of Appalachia. According to The Economist, moonshining costs the state of Virginia around $20 million in alcohol tax revenue a year, while a typical moonshine distillery can net its owner $6,000 a week in untaxed earnings.[9]

However, similar to the growing reacceptance of alcohol in the dying days of the 1920s, even moonshine is slowly gravitating towards the mainstream. The Discovery reality TV show Moonshiners has introduced a new generation to the practice, connecting the mystery of illegal outdoor distilling with outlaw sensibilities and a foot firmly planted in an American pastime.[10] TIME magazine reports that in response to the economic crisis of 2008, a handful of states legalized the production and distribution of moonshine as a way to boost their respective economies. After Tennessee became the first state to do so, alcohol companies like Jack Daniels and Jim Beam also got into the act, releasing their own forms of moonshine.[11]

‘Drinking Is Commonplace in the US’

From all this, it is clear that alcohol in America is not going anywhere. Prohibition proved that, despite the best intentions of the temperance movement, the devil you know was a preferable alternative to letting organized crime and widespread lawlessness get a foot in the door. When the tide turned, the federal government was more than happy to admit it made a mistake in outlawing alcohol, if it meant that billions of tax dollars would be collected from the production and sale of alcohol every year.

Alcohol Sales

And Americans don’t mind a bit. More than 66 percent of Americans are drinkers, according to a 2012 Gallup poll. “Drinking is commonplace in the US,” summarized Gallup.[12] Bloomberg Businessweek suggests that a healing economy and consumer confidence are behind the increase in alcohol consumption from January 2013 to January 2014: sales of beer from retailers increased by 6.75 percent; spirits by 8.4 percent; and wine by 3.3 percent.[13] “In fact,” says Bloomberg, “US spending on alcohol has grown during every quarter over the last four years.”

As much as this is indicative of a settled economy and greater reason to celebrate, it also points to the undeniable popularity of alcohol in the American psyche, a sentiment the bathtub gin distillers of prohibition and moonshiners of today would appreciate. From Christopher Columbus bringing sherry with him, to the Puritans loading more beer than water on the Mayflower, to Thomas Jefferson writing the first draft of the Declaration of Independence in a tavern in Philadelphia, to Franklin D. Roosevelt being elected to the first of his four terms on a platform of repealing prohibition,[14] America’s fondness for alcohol flows very, very deep.

The Rite of Passage

under 18 drinking statToday, alcohol is considered a rite of passage in many cultural contexts: at weddings, at sports games, and especially at colleges and universities. The Quinnipiac Chronicle reports that “the excessive use of alcohol has become a key ingredient” on campuses across the country. Indeed, a study published in the Journal of Drug Education pointed out that alcohol use is considered to be integral to the student experience by college graduates who drink heavily.[15]

The Chronicle quoted a study done by Alcohol 101 Plus that showed 84 percent of students consumed alcohol a year prior to taking the survey, and 72 percent consumed alcohol within a month of taking the survey. The findings are similar to statistics released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in 2012: 87.6 people under the age of 18 drank at least once in their lifetime, and 53.3 percent of people reported drinking in the month prior to answering the question.[16]

Despite acknowledging that “usually alcohol plays a part” in issues of vandalism or assaults on Quinnipiac University grounds in Hamden, Connecticut, the school’s Chief of Public Safety clarifies that there is no “beer police.”[17] It’s a sentiment broadly echoed across the country: an understanding that, as Forbes magazine puts it, alcohol is both “dangerous and politically loaded.”[18] Policing the effects of alcohol is one thing; policing alcohol itself is quite another.

Big Alcohol and Big Money

In part, this is because there are hundreds of millions of people who drink alcohol responsibly, and who would object to a source of moderate pleasure being confiscated for no fault of their own. Because of this, the alcohol industry in America knows it enjoys a degree of safety: no one would dare suggest encroaching on it the way the temperance movement did in the early part of the 20th century.

The alcohol industry pulls in some big money. In 2010, the industry generated over $400 billion in economic activity, $90 billion in wages, and 3.9 million jobs for workers. State and local revenues received $21 billion directly in 2010 from the beverage industry.[19]

But these numbers come at a price. The people who buy most of the alcohol in America are alcoholics, says popular website Gawker – but unlike “Big Tobacco,” which has had to make a number of concessions over the last few decades (legal settlements, curbing of advertising, and declassification of documents[20]), “Big Alcohol” largely escapes criticism and scrutiny.[21] Such, perhaps, is the extent of alcohol’s dominance in the American mindset.

Alcohol money

Further examples of the cost of America’s love affair with alcohol:

  • Excessive alcohol use is the third most preventable cause of death in America, claiming 88,000 lives every year.[22]
  • Alcohol misuse problems cost the country $223.5 billion in 2006 ($746 per person).[23]
  • About 17 million adults had an alcohol use disorder in 2012; in the same year, 855,000 adolescents had similar disorders.
  • In 2012, driving deaths caused by alcohol impairment amounted to 10,322.
  • More than 10 percent of children live with a parent who has an alcohol use disorder.[24]

America’s Complicated Relationship with Alcohol

The Fix writes that despite the near-universal acceptance of alcohol in American society today, there still exists a deliberate ignorance of how deeply alcohol flows in America’s veins.[25] This relegation of alcohol to a “footnote to our history” might explain some of the reasons why alcohol is still so strongly associated with crime, emergency room visits, and other societal and medical problems.

That point will likely never be resolved, but it does hint at America’s surprisingly complicated relationship with alcohol. As a country of cultures, America is home to a thriving moonshine movement, a reckless student population who think of binge drinking as a natural (even mandatory) part of their college experience, social drinkers, conservative religious groups who still promote regulations against alcohol use – and looming in the background, the alcohol industry, making literally hundreds of billions of dollars every year off weddings, parties, happy hour, bar crawls and alcoholics.[26] After the “noble experiment” of prohibition became the failed trial, it is highly unlikely that alcohol will ever stop flowing in America.


[1]The Constitution of the United States: Amendments 11-27.” (n.d.) National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed December 10, 2014.

[2]Prohibition and the Rise of the American Gangster.” (n.d.) The National Archives. Accessed December 10, 2014.

[3]How Not to Legalize a Drug.” (July 2014). Reason. Accessed December 11, 2014.

[4]8th Circuit Court of Appeals Decision in Southern Wine and Spirits Case.” (September 2013). American Beverage Licenses. Accessed December 11, 2014.

[5]The End of U.S. Prohibition: A Case Study of Mississippi.” (June 1996). Highbeam Business. Accessed December 11, 2014.

[6]These Are The Places in America Where Alcohol is Still Banned.” (March 2012). io9. Accessed December 11, 2014.

[7]How Much is the Government Making Off of Alcohol?” (July 2010). TurboTax. Accessed December 11, 2014.

[8]Historical Background of Alcohol in the United States.” (n.d.) The Free Dictionary. Accessed December 11, 2014.

[9]Moonshine: Lightning Strikes.” (April 2009). The Economist. Accessed December 11, 2014.

[10]Moonshine Moves Out of the Hills and On To the Shelves.” (July 2013). NY Daily News. Accessed December 12, 2014.

[11]Moonshine is Growing in the U.S., and Big Whiskey Wants a Taste.” (May 2013). TIME magazine. Accessed December 11, 2014.

[12]Majority in U.S. Drink Alcohol, Averaging Four Drinks a Week.” (August 2012). Gallup. Accessed December 11, 2014.

[13]An Intoxicating New Year: America’s Alcohol Sales on the Rise.” (February 2014). Bloomberg Businessweek. Accessed December 11, 2014.

[14]Alcohol and Drinking in American Life and Culture.” (n.d.) State University of New York. Accessed December 12, 2014.

[15]Alcohol Abuse as a Rite of Passage: The Effect of Beliefs About Alcohol and the College Experience on Undergraduates’ Drinking Behaviors.” (2006). Journal of Drug Education. Accessed December 12, 2014.

[16]2012 Tables: Tobacco Product and Alcohol Use.” (n.d.) Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Accessed December 12, 2014.

[17]The Unofficial College Culture: Alcohol Considered a “Rite of Passage.” (March 2013). The Quinnipiac Chronicle. Accessed December 12, 2014.

[18]The New United States of Booze.” (February 2013). Forbes. Accessed December 12, 2014.

[19]Distilled Spirits Council Reports Record Spirit Sales.” (n.d.) Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Accessed May 21, 2018.

[20]Concessions, Admissions, Money: Florida Wins Big From Big Tobacco.” (August 1997). Sun Sentinel. Accessed December 12, 2014.

[21]Who Drives the Alcohol Industry?” Alcoholics.” (September 2014). Gawker. Accessed December 12, 2014.

[22]CDC – Fact-Sheets – Alcohol Use and Health.” (August 2014). Centers for Disease Control. Accessed December 12, 2014.

[23]CDC Features – Excessive Drinking Costs U.S. $223.5 billion.” (April 2014). Centers for Disease Control. Accessed December 12, 2014.

[24]Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” (n.d.) National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Accessed December 12, 2014.

[25] “How Alcohol Has Steered American History.” (May 2011). The Fix. Accessed December 12, 2014.

[26]The Slow Death of Prohibition.” (March 2012). BBC News. Accessed December 12, 2014.