Repeal Day

Darcy O'Neil :: December 5, 2006 8:24 PM

Today, December 5th, marks the day that prohibition ended in the US, back in 1933. Prohibition is often referred to as the “noble experiment”, which is really all spin.  It wasn’t really noble and the results were anything but good. People turned to criminal elements to supply their spirits and operate the speakeasies of the 1920's. Illegally produced spirits, like “bathtub gin” were quite common, and deadly, but a lot of the liquor being supplied to the very thirsty USA was smuggled from other countries, like Canada. Yes, Canada the good, was actually Canada the booze black market. In effect, Canada was the supply line for quality spirits during America’s time of need. That’s what friends are for, to float you a drink when things are down.

Canada had its moment with prohibition, but for most it didn’t last very long. During the Great War alcohol producers were converted to industrial production and prohibition was instituted to aid the war effort. After the war the temperance movement tried to make it permanent. In some places like British Columbia it lasted barely a year, and Quebec declined to join the temperance movement and became a place to travel to get a drink. Trying to take wine away from a French man, they must have been crazy. The laws were relatively lax compare to American laws, and allowed alcohol to be consumed in private dwellings. By the mid 1920's most of Canada was “wet” again. Opponents of prohibition maintained that it violated British traditions, which Canada is based on, of individual liberty.

One of the more interesting facts about Canadian prohibition was that manufactures were still allowed to produce spirits and beers, as long as they were going to be exported. Unlike the US, were everything was shutdown and barrels of spirits were smashed in the streets, Canadian companies could still supply other provinces, like Quebec, or other countries. This was a major opportunity for companies to profit from the temperance movement. In 1920 alone, when the US went dry, 900,000 cases of Canadian spirits were “exported” to the US.

Some of the Canadian companies that profited from this export business included Seagram’s and Hiram Walker. Some reports say that Seagram’s may have accounted for half of the illegal liquor crossing the border during that era. It was also very convenient that the Hiram Walker distillery is located in Windsor, just a short boat ride across the Detroit river. Today, many divers still search the bottom of the river looking for sunken boats that contain the smuggled goods. Occasionally there are some outstanding finds of unopen bottles of whisky.

The laxness in which the Canadian and provincial governments enforced the export laws is quite amusing. Basically, distilleries were allowed to operate at any capacity during prohibition, but sales were restricted, unless the company exported the product. All that was required was a document stating you intended to export the liquor you purchased at the distillery and they’d load you up. There are a lot of tales about bootlegging, but a good one involves the distillery in Windsor, a smuggler and a row boat. As this individual docked his row boat he would present a document stating that he wished to purchase a large quantity of alcohol for export to Jamaica. The method of transportation was the small row boat and since the Detroit River eventually drains out into the Atlantic ocean, this met the requirements of the Canadian government to allow export.

During the period of 1920 to 1933 many Americans developed a taste for Canadian whisky. With Seagrams and Hiram Walker, among others, stock piling tens of thousands of barrels of premium aged spirits, it was only a matter of time until they would make another significant profit from the noble experiment. When prohibition ended in the US, the market was flooded with Canadian whisky. There were no stocks of American rye or Bourbon so the only aged spirits available were from other countries. Scotland provide a significant amount of scotch to the very thirsty American market. Only in the last decade has the bourbon market truly started to recover.

I hope that those who truly enjoy good spirits and cocktails appreciate the efforts of the Canadian exporters to help ensure that the great American people did not forget that drinking is good, in moderation of course.

 ... Little did enemies of moonshine and saloons realize that upon creating prohibition and putting liquor out of the reach of the general population, they had in effect created a monster.

For instead of society turning reflectively upon itself to ponder the common good, it reacted by plunging headlong into one of the wildest, most violent and colourful of times – The Roaring Twenties.”
from “The Rumrunners, a prohibition scrapbook” by C.H. (Marty) Gervais,
published 1980, Firefly Books Ltd., Scarborough, Ontario   


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