"Southern Food & Beverage Museum," Photo by Burke Bischoff

A Drinking Problem: New Orleans During Prohibition

15:00 November 05, 2020
By: Burke Bischoff

New Orleans's history with alcoholic drinks is often as interesting and colorful as the city itself. Not only has New Orleans been the birthplace of many famous cocktails, such as the Sazerac, the Grasshopper, and the Hurricane, but Louisiana is pretty much the only state in America that has a multitude of drive-thru daiquiri shops (much to the confusion and/or horror of most other people in the rest of the country). Considering New Orleans's pop culture image of people passed out drunk on Bourbon Street at 8 a.m., it's fascinating how the Big Easy dealt with a point in history when the U.S. decided to outlaw alcohol.

Prohibition was a time in American history when all production, sale, and transportation of drinks with more than 0.5 percent alcohol were forbidden, through the adoption of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution. It was thought that this amendment, which was mostly spearheaded by Protestant groups like the Anti-Saloon League and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, would help strengthen society's moral character by getting rid of alcohol, which they solely blamed for social issues such as violence and poverty. In Louisiana, this temperance movement (or "dry" movement) was more supported in Protestant-dominated North and Central Louisiana than in Catholic-dominated South Louisiana. So, when the Volstead Act, the federal enforcement of the amendment, officially took effect in January 1920, the Crescent City put up a good deal of resistance to it.

When asked what he was doing about enforcing the ban in Louisiana, Huey P. Long, who was governing the state near the end of Prohibition, was quoted as saying, "Not a damn thing." This sentiment was particularly true in New Orleans, which was, at one time, labeled the "wettest" city in the United States. Since New Orleans was one of the go-to port cities of the South, it already housed thousands of bars and saloons that accepted multitudes of booze shipments from the Caribbean, Europe, and other parts of the world by the time Prohibition swept in. Alcohol was a major moneymaker for the city and became ingrained into its culture. In order to avoid losing out on this part of their livelihood, local businesses and New Orleanians had to get creative to try and circumvent the ban.

While the amendment banned alcohol from being produced after 1920, it didn't take away the booze that was made, transported, and sold before Prohibition. This meant that a large supply of alcohol was readily available, easy to come by, and could be smuggled all over the country by bootleggers. Some of these "rum-runners" also had the habit of bringing in home-brewed, amateur-made moonshine and selling it to unsuspecting buyers, which actually caused the deaths of a good number of people because they were essentially drinking poison.

As the Volstead Act started cracking down on local breweries and saloons that refused to comply, New Orleanians ended up scouring the city for whatever "speakeasies" that they could find. These were usually hidden rooms or bars that were run in secret, inside other establishments. Anything could have housed speakeasies: grocery stores, office buildings, people's cars, barber shops, pharmacies, jewelry stores. You could go to different restaurants around the city, and your waitress would just pull out a flask and add it to your coffee or tea if you wanted it. Popular local restaurants, including Antoine's, Commander's Palace, Galatoire's, and Tujague's all either had speakeasies or were serving alcohol on the down-low during Prohibition.

With New Orleans taking such a laissez-faire attitude to the ban (local police tended to either turn a blind eye to the speakeasies or were regular patrons themselves), federal "dry" agents were eventually sent to the city in an effort to clean out all of the illegal drink sales. Throughout the 13 years of the ban, thousands of local bars, restaurants, cabarets, and clubs were raided and padlocked by federal agents. There's a story that a famous agent named Izzy Einstein, who apparently had a knack for disguises, arrived in New Orleans and took a cab to his hotel room. On the way there, Einstein asked his driver where he could find some drinks, and the driver offered to sell him a bottle that he had under the seat.

While Prohibition did cause a drop in alcohol-related domestic violence and deaths, this period was marred by nationwide bootlegging and the rise in power of many organized criminal syndicates like the Mafia. Prohibition finally saw its end in April 1933 with the establishment of the Twenty-First Amendment, which was designed to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment and allow the importation and sale of beer and wine into states that had previously allowed it. When the repeal took effect, according to an article by former Historic New Orleans Collection Senior Curator John Magill, New Orleans welcomed it by issuing approximately 911 retail beer permits within a few days.

Although Prohibition may have been rooted in good intentions, it is largely remembered as a failed national experiment that caused more damage than it was trying to fix. And in regards to New Orleans, Prohibition just reaffirmed that the city was and, in some respects, still is the "liquor capital of America."

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