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Why Prohibition Didn’t Work

It’s one of those often repeated debates that goes nowhere: Why didn’t prohibition work? Both sides of the debate ante up and hence forth argue ad nausea. So with the help of Google’s Ngram Viewer I’m going to provide a simple, visual explanation of human nature and why prohibition failed. If this doesn’t explain it, nothing will.

Google’s Ngram Viewer is a cool little tool that graphs the occurrence of words in literature (books, etc.) over time. It basically shows you how often a word was used during a particular period of time and how the usage has increased or decreased. Obviously, one of the first words I plugged into it was "cocktail" and an interesting result popped up. It shows a significant increase in the use of "cocktail" during the time period of prohibition. Odd, considering the goal of prohibition was to kill off alcoholic drinks.

First, here is a look at the word "cocktail" from 1800 to 2000.

Now here is a look at the time period around the "noble experiment":

cocktails and prohibition

As you can see, at the turn of the century the term "cocktail" hadn’t really established itself in English literature. From 1806 to 1900 the word cocktail appears in 0.0000200% of printed documents (newspapers, books, etc.).

As the date of the "Noble Experiment" approached (1920) the number of times the word cocktail is used in English literature steadily increases to 0.0000500% or an increase of 150%.

From 1920 to 1930 the graph almost goes exponential and by 1930 the usage of the term cocktail increased to 0.0001500, or 750%. Around 1935 it is at 0.0002000 or a 1000% (10x) increase since 1900.

The use of the word cocktail peaks in 1945 at about 0.0002400 or a 1200% increase since 1900.

Basically, during prohibition the use of the word cocktail quadruples in literature.

What is a plausible, if not obvious, explanation? I would say that with all the attention the Temperance Movement gave ardent spirits and the cocktail, it piqued everyones curiosity. And nothing is harder to quench than human curiosity, we love the forbidden fruit. Serpent Fang Appletini anyone?

So, in a twisted way, everyone who enjoy’s a well-crafted cocktail should raise a glass and thank a Prohibitionist for giving the cocktail the rightful attention it deserved and making it a mainstay of the bar.

Darcy O'Neil | Art of Drink

Writer, author of Fix the Pumps, chemist, beekeper and general do-er-of-things, Darcy can generally be found looking for new and interesting things to do, usually over a cocktail. Currently working on more soda fountain history.