Hopped Up: New York Beer Then and Now part 3

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The 18th amendment of the US Constitution, otherwise known as Prohibition was the government’s laughable attempt at moral and social reform.  The 31st president of the United States Herbert Hoover even referred to it as a ‘noble experiment’. In reality it was nothing more than a draconian ban on producing and selling beer, wine and liquor from 1920 to 1933. New Yorkers, who like to march to the beat of their own drum, were quick to reject this piece of bureaucratic drivel and did so in spectacular fashion. Estimates put the number of speakeasies, many of which were owned by mobsters at 32,000, some have it much higher.

Nightclubs also flourished. The more successful owners bought protection from law enforcement officials who were sworn to uphold this preposterous law. Some of the officials accepting bribes were also turning up to party and get sauced at the very same establishments they were taking money from.

Prohibition quickly degenerated into a deeply felt clash of cultures that utterly transformed life in the city. Impossible to enforce, the ban created vibrant new markets for illegal alcohol, spawned corruption and crime, fostered an exhilarating culture of speakeasies and nightclubs, and exposed the nation’s deep prejudices. Michael Lerner’s book Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City, adequately depicts prohibition as a battle between competing visions of the United States, pitting wets against drys, immigrants against old stock Americans, Catholics and Jews against Protestants, and proponents of personal liberty against advocates of societal reform ( Prohibition did little to curtail moral and social injustices, rather quite the opposite it led to more crime; it furthered a divide amongst the country and ultimately inspired drinkers to go to new and more brazen lengths to get alcohol.

Prohibition Fun Facts

It is estimated that one point during prohibition 50,000 Manhattan residents were supplementing their income by illegally making wine for the mob.

A Broadway director named Earl Carroll threw one party at a speakeasy where “a nude ‘actress’ bathed on stage in a tub filled with champagne while male guests [drank] from the tub with the dipper.” The party became legend when Carroll was investigated for the booze he served there. The actress in question “profitably recreated the event in a show called the ‘Greenwich Village Follies,’ ” and smugglers were known to do their own version of the act at sea, with one pirate placing “a mop on his head” before submerging in his champagne bath (

At McSorley’s, “Barney Kelly made ale in its basement, diluting it so it could be called ‘near beer,’ yet customers could get drunk on it. The saloon was never raided because police and politicians, mostly Irish, were steady customers.” Pete’s Tavern in Union Square disguised itself as a florist up front, while “customers entered through a back room and a dummy refrigerator door.” And Chumley’s, on Bedford Street, had “several entrances and exits including an underground tunnel a block away, as well as a secret door behind a bookcase leading to a side alley” (

The Twenty-first Amendment to the United States Constitution repealed the Eighteenth Amendment which had mandated nationwide Prohibition on alcohol on January 16, 1919. New Yorkers voted almost eight to one in favor of repeal which was ratified on December 5, 1933. Over the decades, New York has made progress in modernizing its alcohol laws. In 2003, the state struck down its Blue law banning Sunday alcohol by allowing stores to open any six days, including Sunday, benefiting time-pressed consumers as well as retailers who now have the ability to operate like every other business in this 21st century economy. The success of the stores that opened on Sundays led the legislature to pass permanent seven day sales. New York also repealed an archaic ban on spirits auctions. Slowly, the remaining vestiges of Prohibition appear to be disappearing in New York (  Next week we wrap up our Hopped up: New York Beer Then and Now series with the final installment. In part 4 we will take a look at the beer scene from post prohibition all the way up to modern day New York.


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For more on the prohibition era check out PROHIBITION, directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, tells the story of the rise, rule and fall of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The film starts with the early history of alcohol in America and examines the 19th-century temperance and progressive movements through the repeal of the 18th Amendment in 1933. This 6-hour, three part documentary also includes over 2 hours of bonus content.




Prohibition in New York State and Its Repeal




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8 thoughts on “Hopped Up: New York Beer Then and Now part 3

  1. Great history lesson! I find speakeasies so fascinating. McSorley’s has been on my list of places to visit for some time now. I’ll have to make it a point to go next time I’m in the city.

    1. NY had so many speakeasy and alcohol schemes going on during prohibition it must have been such a wild time, Cheers!

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