Bootlegging Wine and Beer During the Prohibition

The ability to drink wine and other alcoholic beverages is a right that most in the United States take for granted. While there are dry or partially dry communities throughout the country, it cannot compare to the alcohol ban that was Prohibition. The United States officially entered Prohibition in 1920 and it came to an end in 1933. During this time the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcohol was banned. This became a defining time in the nation’s history that wasn’t entirely as positive as supporters of the ban had hoped.

What Led Up To Prohibition?

Prohibition was a direct response to the rampant use of alcohol in the United States. In the 1800s alcohol abuse was at an all-time high; particularly amongst males, some of whom were no older than 15 years old. On average the amount of pure alcohol consumed by the average American, on an annual basis, was seven gallons. This created a problem for businesses who were suffering drops in productivity and households who were dependent on husbands to earn money, as large numbers of drunken men failed to work. Abuse of women and children was also increasingly becoming a problem due to the increasing alcohol problem. Groups, such as the Women’s Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League, worked to ban alcohol, with varying degrees of success. In fact, by 1916 there were 19 states that had some form of anti-liquor laws in effect. The greatest victory for the dry advocates came in the form of World War I. At the time a large number of breweries were German-American owned. This was an angle that The Anti-Saloon League used to their best advantage. As a result, the 18th Amendment was passed by Congress in December of 1917. In January 1918, partial prohibition was put into effect by President Woodrow Wilson. By September the wartime beer production was banned entirely. It was considered a measure of war.? The 18th Amendment was ratified in January 1919, and went into effect one year later.

Wine and Prohibition

The 18th Amendment was originally written in a way that wine would have remained legal. Under the initial wording only intoxicating liquors would fall under the manufacture and sale ban. Because wine, as well as beer, was not considered an intoxicating liquid, wineries had hoped that the ban would not apply to them. Then the Volstead Act was enacted in October 1919. Also known as the National Prohibition Act, it lowered the alcohol percent to 0.5 percent. Officially, this meant that wine could no longer be sold legally. This did little to prevent people determined to have wine. For example, wine was still considered legal when used for religious reasons. This proved beneficial to a few wineries that were allowed to produce the sacramental wine for church services. This also resulted in more people attending churches as well. Some in the wine industry also found another way around Prohibition. It did this by selling grape juice kits to customers. In an attempt to avoid problems with the law, the kits came with a warning in the form of how to prevent fermentation. Naturally, by warning how not to cause fermentation it was also telling consumers the way to cause it, whether intentional or not.


Alcohol was a vice that could not be stopped entirely, despite the best efforts of the law, including the efforts of Prohibition agents. In fact, one of the byproducts of Prohibition was the increase of crime. One aspect of this influx of crime was the illegal transportation and selling of liquor that was known as bootlegging. The illegal act of bootlegging was performed by members of individual crime operations, or they were larger operations run by organized crime. Although it is commonly associated with Prohibition, there are several different beliefs as to the origin of the term. For some “bootlegging” has roots in the Civil War, and refers to soldiers who would sneak liquor into camps either beneath their pant leg or in their boots.

Another belief is that the term came from people selling illegal alcohol to Native American reservations in the 1880s. To smuggle in the alcohol these individuals were believed to hide flasks in their boots. Regardless of its origins, bootlegging was big business. The demand for alcohol was as high as ever and criminals stepped in to fulfill the demand. Speakeasies, brothels and gambling halls were all in the market for illegal liquor. The middlemen between the moonshiners and the customers were the bootleggers. Often police, judges, Prohibition agents, and other government officials were lured by the money and either acted as bootleggers themselves or took bribes to make the path easier for the criminals involved. Bootlegging and organized crime went hand in hand. One of the most famous bootleggers was Chicago’s Al Capone who set up a very elaborate and profitable bootlegging system.