Where to mark 100 years since Prohibition

A century after the nationwide booze ban, there are still plenty of ways to discover the illicit allure of the Prohibition era.

Friday, February 7, 2020,
By Connor McGovern
The slick 21 Club in Manhattan is a former 1920s speakeasy.
The slick 21 Club in Manhattan is a former 1920s speakeasy.

Raise a glass — this year marks 100 years since Prohibition, when the United States enforced a nationwide ban on the production and sale of alcohol in an attempt to steer the population back to Protestant values. America’s political and moral landscapes were entirely reshaped by those 13 years of state-enforced abstinence and while Prohibition might have ultimately failed to curtail nationwide drinking, it built cultural pillars that endure today, from not-so-temperate tales that inspired novels and films to the secret world of speakeasies. And today, a century on from the dry old days, travellers can find no shortage of spots to soak up the era’s long-lasting legacy.

(Read about prohibition – and why the 'noble experiment' never worked.)

THE TOUR

Synonymous with Al Capone’s dirty dealings, Chicago was a hub of impropriety in the 1920s. Vestiges of its Prohibition days are everywhere — set off on a Prohibition Gangster Tour with author and historian John Binder and delve into the Windy City’s nefarious past, from bootlegging gangs to illegal drinking dens. choosechicago.com

THE BAR

You’ll find speakeasy-style bars all over the world, but it only took a bottle and two chairs to constitute a speakeasy during Prohibition. Some secretive spots, however, made a name for themselves: head to The Back Room in New York, one of only two original speakeasies in the city still around today, and follow in the footsteps of mobsters and molls who’d gather here for so-called ‘business meetings’.

THE DRINK

The quality of moonshine was often questionable, but if there’s one drink to define the decade, there’s a case for whisky. It was often smuggled in from Canada and was the only drink the government allowed at the time, albeit prescribed in small doses for ‘medicinal purposes’. Try one on the rocks at the slick, no-jeans-allowed 21 Club, a former 1920s speakeasy in Manhattan.

THE MUSEUM

‘Good behaviour rarely makes history’ says the American Prohibition Museum in Savannah, Georgia. Indeed — it’s the boozing, brawling and bootlegging that inspires the exhibitions and immersive displays here. Call in at the museum’s upscale speakeasy, too, for cocktail classes to make your own concoction. 

Prohibition: a timeline

1869
The Prohibition Party is founded, promoting various social reforms. Five years later, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union is also founded as the movement gains ground

1881
Kansas becomes the first state to enshrine Prohibition as part of its constitution

1919
The 18th Amendment is ratified, prohibiting the manufacturing, transporting and sale of ‘intoxicating liquors’ in the US

1920s
Prohibition begins and a black market around illegal booze (known as ‘moonshine’) booms. Notorious bootleggers and gangsters, including Al Capone, are targeted by Prohibition agents

1933
After waning support, Prohibition is officially repealed with the 21st Amendment

Published in the March 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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