May 22, 2018

1942. Liquor Shortage in Britain

"And it isn't even good 'hooch'"
"Free French soldiers and sailors enjoy a pint of beer in a London pub, 1940. A young woman serves them their drinks," 1940 (source)
And it isn't even good 'hooch'


The following article is in light vein, but there is a warning in it that is serious. It is written by an American newspaperman now working in London who saw the results of Prohibition in his own country. Though the shortage of liquor in Britain cannot be classed with America's shortage in her "dry" days, its effects have already been seen in an increased sale of illicit spirits—"hooch" in the United States.

As an old taster of backyard brandy, synthetic Scotch and bathtub gin—a distinction gained through the many painful years of United States Prohibition—I can guarantee that the illegal liquor now being sold in Britain would have made any respectable American bootlegger give himself up to the police.

The hard and bitter truth is that most of the bootleg stuff you get in Britain to-day is what Americans call "plain old rot-gut."

Surprise bottle

It has more headaches than a nursing home and is just about as healthy. I bought a bottle of it in a London night club the other night—a beautiful bottle it was, too, when you consider all the time spent in corking, sealing, and labeling. I took the first drink and my stomach bounced up to my throat and said: "Why don't you get a bootlegger as good as Joe the Dope, who treated us so well in Kansas City?"

As soon as I caught my breath and drowned my stomach's small voice with a glass of water, I explained: "Give the British bootlegger a chance. He's just starting and hasn't yet the full knowledge and experience that 20 years of illicit liquor manufacture afforded Joe the Dope."

Despite what the authorities say or try to do about it, as long as there is any drink shortage in Britain there will be bootleggers of some sort. That should be the one thing that America's "noble experiment" proved to the world. The American bootlegger was the foremost figure of the palmy peace-time era of wonderful nonsense who built a billion-pound industry on the desire of United States citizens to have a drink.

Britain would face creation of a similar illicit industry if her supplies ever ran so low that the men and women fighting the war on the home front could not occasionally relax over a drink.

There are two kinds of bootleg—(1) bad; (2) worse. Remember there is no control over illicit manufacture. Mash for whisky might be made in a garbage pail. The bootlegger usually "needles" his products with raw alcohol—and sometimes not even he is sure when he is getting methyl alcohol or other poisonous stuff.

At the risk of making this piece sound like a temperance lecture, it might be well to recall that there are still lots of Americans walking on crutches as a result of liquor being sold throughout the Southern States which was made with poisonous Jamaica Ginger. Besides this epidemic of "Jake leg," there also were recurrent plagues of blindness from which some persons still have not recovered. You can't be too careful.

There's actually no way of telling whether bootleg liquor is poisonous without a laboratory test. For example, that perfectly awful night club Scotch that I had was harmless enough except that it carried a hangover which attacked with the fury of a blitzkrieg. In drinking bootleg, the only guide and defense you have is your stomach.

What holds true for whisky also applies to brandy. It's pretty hard to disguise bootleg brandy—but a good bootlegger can concoct a product which gives the proper illusion if mixed with lime juice or such.

Supplementing the bootlegger in the United States during Prohibition was the home liquor industry, wherein thousands of Americans made their own stuff as a safeguard against poisoning. Because of the difficulties of distilling, whisky and brandy were ignored. But many persons became so proficient in making a fake brand of gin that they bragged ad nauseum about their product. Ad nauseum would have been a good trade mark for some of it.