The Great Paradox Part One: Prohibition

Ninety-nine years ago, today, marks the eve of the initiation of the greatest social experiment of the 20th century. The production, the sell, the transportation of any intoxicating spirit was condemned to be illegal status under the red, white and blue of personal liberties. Below is the first of two essays that share a bit of a subjective study on the loss of the old-saloon, the paradox that developed and the triumph of Repeal.

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God turned the clock towards midnight. The devil pulled furiously on its hands, attempting to preserve the present and to avoid the future. Satan’s beasts roared loudly, yearning to fulfill their lustful desires. 

During the days before Volstead and his act, the old time saloon accommodated their appetites. Journalist Jacob Riis described the pre-Prohibition haunts with subtle poignancy, “In the best of cases companionship and comfort, the worst an escape into oblivion.” Soothing or not, many of a man sunk into oblivion–faltering, finding refuge on the floors of drags and slums. Yet, however vehemently the gentleman drank, night after night mugs were filled, gamblers waged their bets and choruses wailed of an untrusting government through the tavern. Where the jovial patrons found a drink, companionship and perhaps, even a makeshift concrete cot for a night, puritans saw absent fathers, employees ignorant of their shifts and wages squandered. Graciously, these moral characters wanted to lift the debauchery from the littered floors and walk hand-in-hand to a future of moral balance–clean of sin and dry of envy. 

The country became divided: Wet versus Dry. 

God’s soldiers preached with a zealous sureness that ending the old-saloon era was the cure to an unscrupulous country charmed by the devil’s seat in the impure garden. And as the clock struck midnight on January 17, 1920, the intrusion on Americans’ individual liberties and the states’ rights vanished. Prohibition commenced. “The reign of tears is over,” Evangelist Billy Sunday proclaimed. “The slums will soon be a only a memory. We will turn the our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corn cribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile and the children will laugh. Hell will be forever for rent.”

Drys sanctimoniously passed the 18th amendment with the assistance of people like Anti-Saloon League leader Wayne Wheeler. His political stronghold and religious ideals united the ASL with the Woman Suffrage movement, the voiceless South and the populist movement. Their collective goal was to manifest an abstract reality where the 300,000 ubiquitous dens banished from every small town corner and any filthy metropolis. “As Moses said to the children of Israel that they go forward, just so the time has come for the moral forces of this great nation to march on against the last bulwarks of the enemy,” declared Wheeler. 

Their enemy was large and vast. According to author George Ade, the more famous hang-outs in Chicago’s loop hadn’t been closed for a minute for years and years during the pre-Prohibition era. Saloons filled the pockets of their patrons with lint and redressed their mustaches with stale beer. The drink became a domestic treasure to our dear government. By 1910, alcohol was a multi-hundred million dollar revenue stream for the federal government; accumulating to 20 percent of the federal revenue, overall. Consequently to extinguish the beasts of their tilted hats and their shirts wrinkled in desperation, a new source of revenue had to supplant the evil tyranny that was the fifth largest industry of the United States.

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The virtuous assembly adopted a plan that aligned with all parties involved in the Dry cause. The Prohibition movement constructed a narrative that a federal income tax on the public and corporations would certainly restore the lost revenue once breweries were reduced to producing yeast, and the great distilleries were left to survive on medicinal sales. The Revenue Act of 1913 passed, and seven years later the devil’s grip on time loosened. The illusion for a utopian America arrived; where fit fathers loved their children and men no longer squandered the day in vaudeville halls of indulgence.  

Professional barkeeps rolled down their white sleeves and walked down a dark hallway like Sam Malone on the last episode of Cheers. They took their business to the soda parlors, and served a brand of patrons that couldn’t see over the bar. A new America was forged. But at what cost? In what reality does a fantasy exist when human nature is healthy and thirsty? Long before the the 18th amendment, the curtain went up in the garden of eden. Humans live to consume forbidden fruit, and as humans, we crave to digest what we desire. So when the puritans of the early 20th century disrupted the garden by trying to hide the forbidden fruit; the Wets still craved their drink and they wouldn’t abandon their freedom. 

A proverbial line divided a nation: a new era of history began where one side predicted a featured focus free of confrontation with the devil. As the other side, walked down a shadowy alley where the devil still answered with the correct knock on a door. And behind that door were their personal liberties, held in tack after the initial chaos of losing their dear old saloon. The Wets managed to find order in a new environment to fulfill their human nature with the speakeasy.

The Drys’ contrived a fictional narrative but lacked in taking account for America’s lust for its drink. Men like Wheeler assumed a dry country, full of accountable men, healthy children and a tax plan to prop up a nation was prophecy. “Never again will any political party ignore the protests off the church and the moral focus of the state,” declared Wheeler. But how could a man be so sure of the future? Just because the production, sale and transport of “intoxicating spirits” was on the books, didn’t mean the half whom opposed the moral refuge wouldn’t contrive their own idyllic environment. 

In his book, But What if We’re Wrong?, Chuck Klosterman wrote, “We will never know how we know what we know. Which is why you should never place faith in the hands of a person whose greatest strength is answering his own questions.” Wheeler and the ASL scripted a reality where their causes, their morals, their vision of America was to be played out by characters directly following the law of the 18th amendment. But the Prohibition epoch wasn’t a mini-series like The Little Drummer Girl – where a fiction was scripted to perform a real-life drama by stripping the characters’ minds of certainty, while developing a plot to understand the necessary fiction to act genuine as reality unfolded. 

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The world can’t be scripted. Before the ink of the 18th amendment could settle, a new form of tyranny erupted in America. Six men, masked and brandishing weapons took the security of $100,000 worth of whiskey into their own hands from a train in Chicago. The great social experiment began, and fostered a country of crime. Smugglers of the intoxicating spirit, bootleggers of some shine and “businessmen” of the 1920s never stayed stagnant. They moved forward, lacking trust in any individual man, and only trusting the thirst of America.

Sources:

Drinking in America: Our Secret History by Susan Cheever

Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent

How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York by Jacob Riis

The Old-Time Saloon: Not Wet - Not Dry, Just History by George Ade

Slow & Low Photo Essay

A pharmaceutical remedy to the common cold used to be snuffed out by a little rye dosed with a little candy. A man by the name of Van Beil introduced the country to the bottle and the “rye and rock” trademark. America gained interest and drank rock and rye until the indelible black mark of Prohibition entered the frame. Sips of whiskey became low-key, and even lower in quality, subsequently, rocks of candy continued falling into pours at the old saloon; adding just enough sweetness to the fuel inside patrons’ glasses. But, eventually, Repeal arrived, Scotch and Irish were legally imported back to the States and Bourbon developed into a booming industry. Rock and rye, consequently, fell into the drowning margins of history. 

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Our first destination were the Twin Cities. We spent a week visiting cocktail bar, watching the World Cup and pairing whiskey with bacon.

Our first destination were the Twin Cities. We spent a week visiting cocktail bar, watching the World Cup and pairing whiskey with bacon.

Decades later, Cooper Spirits asked if the abandoned, American classic could be revived. They delved into the history books to resurrect rock and rye by using the recipes of the past. Their outcome was Slow & Low Rock and Rye–a deliciously sweet, bottled old fashioned, draped in Americana. But a recipe wasn’t the only relic to return. S&L combined the bootlegging spirit with the sweet sips of the speakeasy by converting a 1970’s G20 van into a modern rolling whiskey lounge. 

I spent a month driving around Chicago and the surrounding area, fighting off Cubs traffic and dodging drivers next to me taking selfies.

I spent a month driving around Chicago and the surrounding area, fighting off Cubs traffic and dodging drivers next to me taking selfies.

The tour concluded in Wisconsin. I had some strange times while driving for two weeks in the land of cheese and beer, but also met some great folks.

The tour concluded in Wisconsin. I had some strange times while driving for two weeks in the land of cheese and beer, but also met some great folks.

The van tours across the country honoring the tales of the past and sharing the future of the spirit. S&L recaptured the invention of a once highly-proclaimed spirit by moving forward with a modern ethos, “Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Rye.” Author Jordan Peterson says, “No one standing still can triumph.” The S&L van is literally a mobile force, that’s propelling forward and never forfeiting two riches of human nature: freedom and whiskey. 

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The Best of 2018

From a whiskey distillery in Chicago to proposing on the shores of Galway Bay, Ireland to driving a mobile whiskey lounge across the Midwest, here are some of the most memorable whiskey highlights of my 2018. Happy New Year, everyone. Cheers.

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The Most Memorable Bottle

This bottle said the words for me on the shores Galway when I asked my future wife to make forever to be real.

The grief, the weapon emotion that drink can entice from the side of the bar where glasses are filled only upon request is where the damaged of the barroom can rest. But sheltered from the damp streets of Dublin, an American drank in cheer and celebration with trusting and a loving girlfriend at Jameson Distillery Bow St. As a cocktail or two climbed higher than one can count one a single hand, the American developed the ambition and courage to change is life for absolute better. 

As we exited through the gift shop of the distillery, I purchased a bottle of Jameson Distillery Reserve with a custom label. The label read: Will You Marry Me? On the first night I met my girlfriend, we both sipped on Jameson cocktails and her love for Irish whiskey runs as deep as her passion for the legendary Bourbon she’s employed by. Still, I was extremely anxious upon my purchase. I had to lookup the correct spelling of marry just to make sure everything was perfect. 

The following evening, on the shores of Galway, I took her to the coast at sunset. When she wants looking, I dropped to a traditional knew. I quietly spoke her name through the subtle Irish wind. She turned around, and I allowed the label on the bottle to do most of the talking. She froze in astonishment. Romantic tears rolled down her face, allowing me to shed tears of my own. I rose. We laughed through the tears and sealed our engagement with a kiss… and a couple glasses of our newfound whiskey.


The Place I'll Most Miss

Brendan’s Pub / Lower Broadway

My fiancé and I approached the packed bar. I asked for a couple of beers, but, in return, I received two 10 oz. glasses of Laphroaigh, just shy of their brims. Ten-year-old scotch, random bottles of wine and colorful labels of vodka were the remnants of Brendan’s Pub. We drank in ceremony but also, ambivalently, to the end of the night when our neighborhood pub would close it doors forever. 

“The history of the United States could be told in 11 words: Columbus, Washington, Lincoln, Volstead, two flights up and ask for Gus,” wrote H.I. Phillips of the New York Sun. Except at Brendan’s, it was one flight down and ask for Don. Don wore the history of the old saloon on him; from his standard shirt and tie apparel to his properly quaffed silver mane, all to the tales he shared with the folks on the opposite side of the bar. Don was the reason we visited Lower Broadway, the speakeasy underneath Brendan’s, on a weekend evening. He maintained the charm of the Prohibition era speakeasy to the modern, hipster allure of the “speak softly shops.”

A patron visited Lower Broadway for the cozy living room atmosphere buried beneath the Chicago streets, but stayed for Don’s stories. I must have heard about his year or two living in Brooklyn, painting apartments for an apparent mobster more than a handful of times. But as he crafted cocktails with plastic cups from whatever spirits and cordials were left behind on the bar’s last night, all I wanted to hear was about Don and the blank walls in Brooklyn.


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The Best Cocktail Bar

Dandelyan’s Pinnacle Point Fizz

After a long day of walking around London, nothing sounded better than afternoon tea. Even better, this sort of afternoon tea didn’t follow the traditional British standards of silver pots and dainty sandwiches. Afternoon tea at the world’s best cocktail bar consists of booze forward cocktails, stretching imagination and invention of infusion, taste and decor. 

I’m quite certain that England’s mid-eighteenth century implementation of heavy taxes and restrictions on New England rum distilleries (to protect their Caribbean investments) wasn’t meant to curtail 21st century American tourists from drinking locally. But after experiencing Dandelyan’s ‘Modern Life of Plants’ menu last Spring, I kind of wanted to sip and savor every day at the London cocktail bar. 

Dandelyan sits on the River Thames, peering out to the city. The interior of the bar feels like an art deco construction from the mind of Boaz Luhrmann. The elegant stylings of Dandelyan highlight the beauty of the cocktails crafted and served by their topnotch staff. Each cocktail from their ‘Modern Life of Plants’ program works to combine the history of the fruits and active ingredients to flourish with the selected spirits sharing the glass together. My fiancé and I sampled four cocktails and by the end of our afternoon tea, the idea of becoming expats filtered through our tipsy conversation. 


Favorite New Chicago Cocktail Bar

Heavy Feather in Logan Square

After a PBR or two, my friends were ready to head upstairs. At the time, I didn’t even know there was an upstairs at Slippery Slope. Turns out though, the upstairs of the darkly lit Logan Square bar that looks like the bedroom of a high schooler in 1997 that praises the tunes of Marilyn Manson is my new favorite cocktail bar in Chicago. Heavy Feather is a charming upstairs cocktail lounge that takes you back to the late 1970s/early 80s. Even though it’s an upstairs lounge, Heavy Feather houses a sunken den with a warmly lit atmosphere that accentuates the golden accessories surrounding the room. 

A beautiful walnut bar stretching across the majority of the lounge serves as headquarters for a collection of professional barkeeps that pair atmosphere with cocktails. Their vast menu blurs the line between Prohibition soda parlor and the speakeasy when the children of the parlor were put to bed and the deniers of the 18th amendment appeared from the alleys of darkness. A Witches Night Out serves a combination of dark rum, pumpkin spices, caramel and Frangelico in a malt glass, topped cream stretching inches out of the glass. While traditional cocktails are developed with personal twists. The best part of the Heavy Feather is they don’t take themselves too seriously. There’s not a hidden door or secret code required when entering the upstairs lounge from the downstairs dive. Heavy Feather is built to drink and enjoy the conversation around your table. This is truly a must visit for all in 2019.


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The Oddest Place I Enjoyed a Whiskey

Slow & Low Midwest Tour in Milwaukee, WI

I was in search of adventure and whiskey this summer. To fulfill both cravings, I accepted a job with Slow & Low. My main gig was driving a converted 1970s G20 Chevy across the midwest promoting the brand. The converted element of the van was the modified whiskey lounge built in the entire back of the interior. While on my travels I felt the spirit of the bootleggers and the speakeasy patrons dousing their harsh whiskey with bitters and candy to make tolerate the taste. I wanted to meet folks and talk over whiskey, and if I was so fortunate, take a portrait of them at the end of the evening.

After nearly two weeks of driving around Wisconsin, one particular night above Miller Stadium proved to standout from the rest. Up on a hill, late after an extra-inning game, patrons flowed in and out Steve’s On Bluemound. Interesting characters from all walks came to the van that night and none two stood out more than Chad and Gordy. Chad educated the crowd on the laws of marijuana as he rolled the a joint with Slow & Low promotional rolling papers (I suppose they served their purpose), and Gordy, well, ole Gordy told me he didn’t drink much whiskey. So he sipped on a few Buds and also sipped on a few promotional Slow & Low drinks (you know, because he didn’t drink much whiskey). On that street corner in Milwaukee, I shared one quick sip of rock and rye with fellas and thanked for an evening of laughter and entertainment. I found what I wanted on the road this summer. I’m very fortunate for people like Chad and Gordy, they opened my life to good people and good conversation. No one can ever regret those results.


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Most Needed Whiskey

Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland is cold, Scotch is required after.

It was my first night in Iceland. The infamous Icelandic wind rushed off Lake Thingvellir. Our cottage for the night had an incredible view of the sun dropping behind the mountains surround the lake. Picturesque? Absolutely, but I was waiting for the sun to completely fade to darkness, and allow the northern streaks of green to solely have the theater of the sky. At 9pm, a bright moon reflected off the Lake, providing the only light for miles across the the quiet forest. I drove towards the mountains and before reaching my designated site to photograph the Northern Lights, a grayish hue with a slightly green illumination filtered through the darkness of the night. I pulled over and hiked off the main highway towards the base of the mountains. I propped my camera onto my tripod and watched the most amazing show I’d ever witnessed. The green flashes danced in unison over the crests of the mountains, fading in and out of sight for a couple hours.

The forest ground was frozen and the wind was chilling, but I coudln’t leave the brilliant luminescent glow of the sky. I kept snapping photos of the lights dazzling in perfection. The Northern Lights were mainly the reason for traveling to Iceland on the brink of winter. I could’ve stayed in that spot all night, but a dense fog of clouds rolled over the midnight sky, putting the an intermission on the Northern Lights until the following night. Plus, my fingers did feel a little frozen. I didn’t realize how cold my body was until I got to my car. At first, I couldn’t even grip the steering wheel. On the drive back to my cottage, I couldn’t stop thinking about the small bottle of Balblair that I brought from the States. The Highland single malt felt like stepping into a hot tub of water. I polished off all 50ml before catching a few hours of sleep before heading back out to the most peculiar country I’ve visited yet.


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The Bottle I’ll Hold Onto For A While.

KOVAL Special Edition, blended by Phil Romanello.



One of the most important lessons I’ve leaned while working in this industry is: it’s not just about what’s in your glass, the shared experience is more powerful than a good bottle. Freddie Johnson of Buffalo Trace Distillery sums it up best on Neat The Story of Bourbon, “It’s not about the whiskey. It’s about the lives you touch and the people you meet. And the whiskey is the byproduct of a good relationship.”

Last winter, a former colleague of mine at KOVAL Distillery blended his first small batch whiskey. He chose between his two favorite expressions wheat and rye. The day he picked his barrels, he shared a sample from each cask with me. We spoke through the complexities of each whiskey and how they might pair together once blended. Later that week, the distilling team bottled less 200 bottles of Phil’s Special Edition whiskey. I grabbed two bottles of the smooth, caramel, buttery blend; one for myself and another for newborn godson Jack. I wrote a message on the back of Jack’s bottle, depicting the importance of how friend made this single bottle of whiskey. I cannot wait to share the story and the whiskey with Jack.

Thank you, Phil for creating a future of warming, joyful cheers with a little boy that I love.

KOVAL Distillery Photo Essay

The curiosity from the pond in Kentucky traveled to a distillery in Chicago. A couple decades after my grandfather and I reeled in our lines and the shoreline drifted farther into the pond, I entered the whiskey industry at KOVAL Distillery. The artistic charm of the copper stills, the depth of the stacked barrels and the familiar hum of a distillery transformed my childhood imagination to a daily reality. The distillery became my arena of education and the fellas on the distilling team were my teachers for more than three years.

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On Friday mornings I arrived early to the distillery. A luminescent glow shined through the rooftop windows, painting a sepia tone on the column potstill and metal tanks .I rambled down the row of fermentors, following the light and the fresh aroma of rye converting its starches into sugar. The mash tun expelled the laden smell of organic grains settling in the tank.

Past the mash, an assembly of barrels were transforming the white ghost of the spirit into deep a amber. The morning glow turned the white oak barrels into golden monuments. I glided my fingers along the light, through the grooves and knots of the staves. Around the corner, one of the distillers was admiring a batch of whiskey running through the columns. We greeted each other with a hug. Our conversation turned to what he was just appreciating. Although we’ve both seen the production process countless times, we remained charmed by the magic of distilling; how the heart cut–clear as rain–will transform into an unrivaled whiskey after calling charred barrels home. 

He gave me second hug, this one a bit tighter, because we were saying goodbye. This was my final morning wandering through KOVAL Distillery. I was privileged to have worked at the revolutionary distillery. My grandfather was an engineer at Jim Beam, and he taught me the importance of remaining dedicated your craft. Friday mornings are what I miss most–conversing with and capturing the fervent folks that are apart of crafting KOVAL’s innovative spirits.