Irish Whiskey’s Response To Prohibition in America

By Carol Quinn – Archivist at the Archive in Midleton Distillery

2020 marks the 100th Anniversary of the arrival of Prohibition in America, a period where, by law, it was illegal to manufacture, import, transport or sell alcohol. So how did the Irish whiskey industry respond?

Irish whiskey had been exported to America from at least the 1860’s. The earliest record we have for a consignment of Jameson is 1869. However, when World War I (1914 – 1918) broke out, merchant ships leaving Ireland were being targeted and sunk, and as shipping was the only way to export, sales to the US shrunk and had almost stopped altogether by the time Prohibition hit America in 1920. At this time Irish whiskey had a strong international reputation and was being sold all over the world. The Irish distilleries took the attitude that if Prohibition was the law of the land, they weren’t going to break it and they would concentrate on their other markets instead, so they made no attempt to sneak their products in.

Of course, Prohibition didn’t mean that the US went dry, during those years it became the number one importer of cocktail shakers in the world, so liquor was readily available! A network of bootleggers and speakeasies opened almost overnight and bribing of police and law officials to turn a blind eye became commonplace. Whiskey was manufactured by the moonshiner and imported by bootleggers, and there was no shortage of Scotch in particular. Acting as a group, the Scotch whisky industry decided the best approach was to (legally) ramp up exports to territories around the US, contact bootleggers and supply them with what they needed. The bootleggers were responsible for the smuggling into the US, so technically the distilleries weren’t breaking the law. This policy saw places like the Bahamas flooded with Scotch which made its way into America.

Long term, Prohibition had two major effects for the future of Irish whiskey. Firstly, drinkers couldn’t get their hands on Irish whiskey, but Scotch was readily available leading to a sustained loss of market share. In 1934, the first year after Prohibition, the US imported 2.1 million gallons of Scotch vs 56,743 gallons of Irish whiskey.

Secondly, because Irish whiskey had always been expensive, moonshiners often called their rotgut ‘Irish Whiskey’ so that they could charge more for it. For many Americans their first taste of what they believed to be Irish whiskey was this horrible concoction so even when the real thing was available, they didn’t want to drink it.

Prohibition went hand in hand with the Jazz Age, the excitement of the speakeasy and the birth of the Flapper. However, it’s important to remember that the unintended consequences were severe. Widespread corruption regarding the bribing of officials led to a collapse in moral authority for the legal systems and allowed the growth of organised crime, which soon expanded into drug running and prostitution. Violence was a feature of those years, and looking back on it now, its to the credit of the Irish distillers that they weren’t involved in facilitating that.

Prohibition ended with the ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment, which repealed the Eighteenth Amendment, on December 5, 1933, though the sale of alcohol is still forbidden in some areas of America today.