When Starbucks announced it would sell wine and craft beers during the evening at some US branches, you would have thought it was opening brothels, not bottles. One critic said the company was ‘normalising the drinking of alcohol’.
Just as we’re still living under the shadow of the American Civil War, we’re also living under the shadow of Prohibition. The stigma of alcohol remains. Booze, even moderate amounts, is seen by many here as a social evil. But this being the land of extremes, others view drinking and making money out of alcohol as a personal freedom. America’s righteousness is at odds with the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Even during Prohibition, normally law-abiding folk flocked to the newly abundant speakeasies. And just as federally outlawed cannabis is now bought in many states with doctors’ prescriptions from dedicated dispensaries, people then bought alcohol legally with prescriptions at pharmacies. Contemporary readers of The Great Gatsby twigged that Jay’s money came from booze when he was described as getting his wealth from drugstores.
The lack of consensus on alcohol makes socialising with new people a minefield. Do I take a bottle of wine round when invited to dinner, or will that be enough to label me a drunk?
American friends sometimes give an intake of breath when I confide that I went to pubs aged 16. My halves of lager and lime at Farsley’s Old Hall, Leeds, were to me a rite of passage. To some my time in the snug was an unholy childhood initiation into a dangerous vice.
Here you can die for your country at 18, but generally you can’t buy a beer until you’re 21. In the Vietnam era this disconnect prompted some States to reduce the drinking age, a trend reversed by lobbying from a powerful group, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).
MADD did wonders in raising the awareness of drunk and impaired driving dangers. But there seems to be a mushrooming neo-prohibitionist faction in it that’s against all alcohol, even when it isn’t associated with either being underage or driving. One member lamented that President Obama served beer in the White House.
Conflicting attitudes have created a patchwork maze of booze laws which differ from State to State and jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
In Manhattan, where you can get a livener with your coffee before 9am, Monday to Saturday, and where Mad Men’s Don Draper downed many liquid lunches, it’s illegal to buy a drink before 12 noon on Sundays.
In Kentucky, world-famous for bourbon, grocery stores can’t get a liquor license if more than 10 per cent of their sales are food. But a pharmacy selling groceries on the side can. Yup, you can buy hangover cures and alcohol at the same time. In Ohio, Santa can’t appear in a booze ad.
Among the anti-alcohol brigade making life tough for tipplers are American-born movements such as Mormonism. In a restaurant in Utah, the cultural home of Mormonism, a friend fancied one glass of red wine with her pasta. No alcohol was to be seen. When asked, a waiter, who by the way came from Brixton, South London, discreetly slid out a list from beneath a pile of menus, as if it were porn. Even my friend, a Texan from an abstemious Baptist tradition, was taken aback. “Gee,” she said, “I feel like I’m in another country.”
Some restaurants there have so-called Zion curtains, usually frosted partitions behind which bartenders prepare drinks. This is so teetotal customers are not offended, and maybe not tempted, by seeing the demon drink.
Though it happened many years ago, my friend Glenn still remembers the battle he had to get a bottle of wine with dinner in a Moab, Utah restaurant. Wine wasn’t allowed on the bill and couldn’t be bought on a credit card. Staff wouldn’t serve at the table, and he had to climb stairs to a third floor where the wine was stored and then carry a bottle to his table. Since the State regulates the price, at least it was cheap.
But puritanical attitudes toward alcohol are everywhere. Once lunching in an Italian restaurant in Chicago, my companion asked for a bottle of wine. The waiter heard what he expected to hear and brought two full glasses. He looked surprised to be sent back for a bottle.
And here in liberal California two of us ordered a bottle of wine at a restaurant and were asked what we were celebrating.
Alcohol wasn’t always seen as the Devil’s brew. The Pilgrims and the Puritans (yes there is a difference – the first were separatists from the Church of England, the second merely wanted to purify it) drank beer – after all it was safer than bad water.
And colonial America guzzled rum, a by-product of sugar, and later whiskey. The tide of the Civil War may have turned when Abraham Lincoln hired a soldier previously fired from the Army for drinking – General Grant.
But fear of foreigners gave the temperance movements impetus. Prohibition was in part an attempt by the predominantly Protestant middle-class to control the newly-arrived Catholic urban working class. To this day, places with lots of Catholics such as New York, Boston and Detroit – all of which flouted Prohibition – are more relaxed about drinking. Scots-Irish distillers, German brewers and Italian winemakers were also targets.
Immigration continues to change attitudes. In Mexican restaurants where I savour the occasional Margarita (on the rocks with salt) I see younger Mexicans necking it down like bingeing Brits.
Prohibition has had a lasting effect, not just on how Americans drink, but on what they drink.
Mint Juleps, the Tom Collins, Sidecars and my favourite, Whisky Sours, were cocktails invented or popularised in speakeasies to mask the horrible taste of home-made hooch and make it look like a soft drink.
The downside is that some American beers seem weak because during Prohibition they were watered down and people got used to them tasting like gnat’s pee.
While British drunkenness is not our most appealing characteristic, American sobriety seems stiff and sad. Americans miss out on the conviviality of flowing conversations and wine at table, though they rarely have to tiptoe around drunks in the street.
By Lynne Bateson, US Correspondent
As a child growing up in a Yorkshire village, journalist Lynne Bateson rarely went to the city of Leeds just a few miles away, but she dreamed of living in the US. She made it. Here she recounts her adventures, taking a down-to-earth look at life Stateside.