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It’s human nature.

From the youngest to the oldest of us, the forbidding of fruit increases its allure. A wise person once said of Adam and Eve, “The mistake was forbidding the apple. If they had prohibited the serpent, Adam would have eaten the serpent.”

So, in 1919, the United States ratified a constitutional amendment banning alcohol. How did that go?

Quite predictably.

This thirteen-year period is the subject of a fascinating gallery in Savannah, Georgia, called The Prohibition Museum. My husband and I recently visited, and we learned plenty. In particular, the many ways people maneuvered around this anti-alcohol injunction.

Most are familiar with speakeasies where illegal booze was served. A special password was required to get in and, to avoid a police raid, patrons were expected to keep the noise down, or speak easy. The museum has replicated a Roaring Twenties speakeasy called Congress Street Up where, at the end of the tour, you can travel back in time. More on that later.

My husband, Wendy, fits right in, doesn’t he?

Speakeasies got their wares from bootleggers, organized gangs who made, sold, and transported illegal liquor. According to Las Vegas’s Mob Museum, “Prohibition practically created organized crime in America.” In fact, the terms “organized crime” and “syndicate” were rarely used before this time. The gangs thrived and became even more organized selling “illegal beer, watered-down whiskey and sometimes poisonous ‘rotgut’ booze in thousands of mob-owned” speakeasies. The Mafia as we know it today got its big boost with Prohibition.

Another cultural phenomenon that owes its prominence to the liquor ban is stock car racing. One-time moonshine runner and, later, racing legend Junior Johnson once said, “If it hadn’t been for whiskey, NASCAR wouldn’t have been formed. That’s a fact.”

Distilling the white lightning was one thing, but distributing it provided its own dangers. Cars in the Twenties had to outrun law enforcement over dirt, gravel, and single-lane roads. Creative auto mechanics allowed drivers to avoid the cops by souping up the engines. They removed floorboards and seats for increased cargo space.

Charlie Birger and his bootlegging operation from Harrisburg, Illinois

According to the Winston Cup Museum webpage, “They also modified the suspension to handle the weight of the cases and added a dirt-protecting plate in front of the radiator.” Which was all for naught without skilled drivers to handle the high-speed chases.

It’s not surprising these drivers eventually chose to race each other, drawing crowds for miles. NASCAR was born.

Despite all that, 40% of alcohol consumed during these years was made at home in basements, kitchen sinks, and yes—bathtubs. The term “bathtub gin” referred not only to using the family tub to mix hooch but also because the large jugs they filled could only fit beneath that faucet.

Synagogues were permitted to buy and serve sacramental wine if authorized by a certified rabbi. Each congregant was allowed to have ten gallons of wine per year for religious purposes. Apparently, this resulted in an increase in the number of certified rabbis, including those with unusual names like Rabbi O’Leary or Rabbi McDonough.

Hospitals kept denatured alcohol on hand that also could be used for distilling. Medical institutions that had ordered the commodity by the bottle began obtaining it by the boxcar.

Grocery stores sold blocks of dehydrated grapes. Labels warned customers NOT to place them in a corked jug and store them in a dark place for three weeks, as it could result in wine.

Replica of an early Walgreens

One little-known loophole gave doctors, dentists, and veterinarians the ability to write prescriptions for “medicinal whiskey”. Winston Churchill, on a 1931 visit to the US, obtained just that, allowing the famous imbiber to treat himself with as much Scotch whiskey as was needed.

According to an article on Atlas Obscura’s website, “During Prohibition’s first year, doctors prescribed an estimated eight million gallons of medicinal alcohol.” Like today, you could fill these prescriptions at the local drugstore. One might wonder why Walgreens expanded from a small company of 20 stores at the beginning of Prohibition to 525 outlets in 30 states at the law’s end. The company claims their milkshakes brought in an extraordinary business. Hmmm?

Now, we return to Congress Street Up, Savannah’s Prohibition Museum speakeasy. When we approached the door, a small panel slid open.

“Gus sent us,” we said, allowing our entry.

Congress Street Up
Good stuff!

Brick walls, tin punch ceilings, and a parquet floor gave the sense of a basement hideaway a century ago. Period music added to the atmosphere. We sidled up to the bar and read over the menu of period cocktails. As the website says, “There ain’t no Bud Lights here!”

An extraordinarily talented bartender mixed drinks in a smooth ballroom-like dance. My husband ordered the Brown Derby, made from Old Forester bourbon, grapefruit, and honey. I chose the Mary Pickford, with Bacardi rum, maraschino liqueur, pineapple, and grenadine. Delicious!

But now I’m wondering—should I have gotten the Corpse Reviver No. Two?

Corpse Reviver?


Mejia, P. (2017, November 16). During prohibition, doctors wrote prescriptions for Booze. Atlas Obscura. Retrieved January 20, 2023, from

NASCAR and prohibition: How outlawing alcohol created a racing industry. Winston Cup Museum & Special Event Center. (2019, October 10). Retrieved January 20, 2023, from

Prohibition profits transformed the mob. Prohibition. (n.d.). Retrieved January 20, 2023, from

Savannah Speakeasy Bar serving Classic Craft Cocktails. Savannah Museums. (n.d.). Retrieved January 20, 2023, from

Teeter, A. (2020, December 27). Winston Churchill received a prescription for alcohol to get around american prohibition. VinePair. Retrieved January 20, 2023, from

One comment on “The Mafia, NASCAR, and Walgreens

  1. N.J.A.Mastro says:

    So well done, Mary Beth. I really enjoyed reading this informative post. I knew about Nascar’s evolution during Prohibition, but not Walgreens. Go figure!


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