The Appeal of Repeal:
Prohibition ended with a whimper in this always spirited city

New Orleans Times-Picayune
December 5, 2008

Louisiana resisted Prohibition.

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At least the southern parishes did. In 1918, the state senate considered ratifying of the 18th Amendment, which would outlaw the "manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors."

Senators deadlocked 20-20, but during a special session in the heat of August, the "dries" found an extra vote, and Louisiana approved the ban on booze 21-20, the slimmest margin in any state.

Two years later, on Jan. 16, 1920, America outlawed alcohol. For 13 years, 10 months and 17 days, any bartender who sold a shot of whiskey violated the U.S. Constitution.

"Nothing out of the ordinary occurred in New Orleans," wrote journalist Herbert Asbury in 1950, a time when stories from those years were fresh memories instead of well-worn anecdotes. "That city simply ignored Prohibition, both on the night of January 16 and thereafter."

If only that were totally true.

Today, New Orleans is known for its lively bar scene and is home to Tales of the Cocktail, a summer festival that's arguably the premier event for cocktail and spirits professionals and enthusiasts.

But after 1920, the great bars of New Orleans vanished as liquor consumption went underground. The Sazerac House closed. The New York Times reported that Henry Ramos, who "won a suitcase full of World Fair prizes" for his frothy gin fizz, was then mixing paint and varnishes, giving them "names that once belonged to drinks that only gentlemen knew." The Old Absinthe House somehow stayed open but was later padlocked -- for a year.
Delmonico's restaurant was busted in 1921, and 20 gallons of wine, 75 bottles of "good liquor," one case of whiskey and two dozen bottles of beer were found. That same year Commander's Palace was raided.

"Count" Arnaud Cazenave tussled with Prohibition agents for years. The Quarter Club, which he leased, was raided in 1924. Maxime's, a bar he reportedly ran, was caught with bootleg booze in 1927 and the count's home on Esplanade Avenue was also searched. Finally, in 1930, Arnaud's restaurant itself got a visit from agents. A jury of good New Orleanians, however, refused to convict Cazenave.

In 1923, federal authorities sent their best undercover agent here to dry up the oceans of illegal alcohol still flowing. Isidor Einstein, a self-promoting "master of disguise" known nationwide as Izzy, arrived in New Orleans looking for booze. He found it moments later, when a cab driver offered to sell him a pint.

For the next 10 days, Izzy put together a list of more than 800 people violating the Volstead Act, the federal law that spelled out how Prohibition was enforced. Agents spent a week raiding speakeasies and arresting bootleggers. The Times-Picayune noted that when this offensive ended and the weekend arrived, liquor "flowed freely," seats at "thronged" cabarets were nearly impossible to find and "a number of old-timers declared New Orleans nightlife Saturday rivaled that of pre-Volsteadian days."

The undermanned and poorly paid federal Prohibition force got little help from local authorities, and New Orleans remained one of the wettest cities in America. Police didn't care that bartenders at Tujague's hid bottles in their aprons, didn't ask what happened when couples met in the private rooms on Galatoire's second floor. And they looked the other way when men entered Antoine's ladies room, which had a door to a secret bar called the Mystery Room, and walked out with a coffee cup filled with hooch.

Even so, good liquor became expensive and rare, despite widespread smuggling through St. Bernard Parish. Home-brewed alcohol became the fad, and New Orleans Hops, Malt and Products Co. ran four stores. And when people got hold of the hard stuff, they no longer lingered over their glasses as they did in the days before 1920. They downed the stuff quickly.

"They drank to get drunk," says David Wondrich, "drinks correspondent" for Esquire magazine and the author of "Imbibe."

"There aren't that many drinks that were invented during Prohibition, and most of them were terrible," Wondrich said. "Looking at these recipes, they seem to mainly be a way to get as much booze into your system as possible."

And then, 75 years ago today, Prohibition ended.

In the 1932 presidential election, Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt didn't even debate Prohibition. After FDR's inauguration, he immediately asked Congress to legalize beer with 3.2 percent alcohol, and nine days later lawmakers did. In February 1933, the states received a new amendment overturning Prohibition. In record time, 35 approved it. Despite grumblings from Mormons, Utah held off voting until Tuesday, Dec. 5, at 5:32 p.m. so that it could cast the deciding vote repealing the 18th Amendment.

At 7 p.m. that same night, FDR officially legalized alcohol. An hour later, United Liquor Importers and Distillers delivered to New Orleans' Roosevelt Hotel the city's first legal order of whiskey in more than 13 years.

New Orleans greeted the news with a shrug.

The city had already properly feted the arrival of 3.2 beer. Days before Repeal Day speakeasies such as Pat O'Brien's began acting legitimate, pouring drinks with no fear of prosecution. Certainly, few in New Orleans had waited nearly 14 years for a drink.

The Times-Picayune reported that "musty old recipes are being hunted in attics and bureau drawers as skilled bartenders, casting off the derogatory Prohibition title of bootleggers, are preparing for the days when correct drinking will again be among the arts and mixing drinks an abstruse science."

The proper way to make a Sazerac was rediscovered. Martinis were back on menus. And although Henry Ramos no longer wielded a cocktail shaker, his gin fizz was now more than just a memory.

"We saved the Ramos fizz for the American people during Prohibition," Huey P. Long said a few years after its repeal to a room full of New York City reporters.

Most pre-Prohibition drinks were forgotten, though, even in New Orleans. Until bartenders recently took an interest in classic cocktails, a request for a "Last Word," an "Aviation" or a "Corpse Reviver No. 2" would only get you a blank stare.

"Before Prohibition you had this tradition of bartending at the greatest level," says Chris McMillian, cocktail historian and bartender at Bar UnCommon in the Renaissance Pere Marquette Hotel. "The best known bartenders were much like today's celebrity chefs. After Prohibition was over, we went into decline, until recently. The skill of bartending just disappeared."

Seventy-five years ago today, according to The Times-Picayune, "for the first time in the past 13 years, the lights were turned out in one of the city's leading French restaurants as cafe brulot was prepared before an admiring group of patrons."

And tonight, waiters at Arnaud's, Antoine's, Galatoire's and Commander's Palace -- all restaurants founded before 1920 -- probably will once again dazzle diners with pots of flaming, brandy-spiked cafe brulot, keeping alive a connection to the years before Prohibition.

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