As I travelled this past week across the Midwest stopping in through nearly fifty different liquor stores along a swath stretching from Houston to Chicago and back, I was astounded by how many great bottles I saw out and about on the shelf. Of course, none of these bottles would I ever buy as they far outpaced even Secondary Bourbon Market pricing, at multiples above exaggerated secondary prices. In one location I saw a bottle of Old Rip Van Winkle priced nearly 1,500 dollars over the secondary market price for the same bottle (and that secondary price also includes delivery to your door).
With prices for bourbon being what they are, many may be thinking that it's time to start hammering out your own still in the backyard! Of course, copper prices aren't that great either. Between the stupid pricing many retail joints are asking and being back in the Midwest, it did however get me thinking about bootlegging, and so this post is dedicated to digging into this term and some history that goes along with.
Bootlegging refers to manufacturing, transporting, distributing or selling illegal or prohibited alcohol.
Originating in the 1880's in the Midwest the term refers to traders who would hide a bottle or bottles of liquor in their boot tops when trading with Native Americans. This term became a bigger part of the general vernacular during Prohibition with the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Al Capone famously said, "When I sell liquor, it's bootlegging. When my patrons serve it on a silver tray on Lakeshore Drive, it's hospitality."
Although Prohibition ended the legal sale of alcohol from 1920 until its repeal in 1933, the demand for alcohol didn't disappear. Interestingly, millions of bottles of "medicinal" whiskey were sold in drugstores across the United States through real or often times forged prescriptions.
Millions of gallons of denatured alcohol for industrial use which were mixed with chemicals to make it unfit for drinking were also illegally obtained, "washed" to supposedly remove the chemicals and mixed with a combination of tap water and in some instances whiskey for flavor and sold showing up in various speakeasies of the era.
Lastly, bootleggers began distilling their own whiskey. Many of these operations were ill equipped to actually distill liquor and these iffy batches of illegally produced whiskey were often termed "rotgut." It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that these rotgut batches contained dangerous impurities that could cause blindness, paralysis or in some instances, death.
Although you may think that women bootleggers were uncommon, the truth of the matter is that they were just as likely to be a bootlegger. For mothers who were working class, bootlegging was a lucrative and rather easy way of providing some extra income to the family. Prohibition created a new underground economy that changed the way women worked, socialized, and lived.
Although Prohibition ended in 1933, it wasn't the end of bootlegging. Today's bootleggers have evolved to be fully virtual. They can be found on Craigslist, Facebook and many other Secondary Bourbon Markets and are now known as flippers. They provide a service to those who cannot find bourbon through the typical means....(note my recent experience traversing the Midwest). Like them or hate them, they are a natural component of "the bourbon matrix." In a market that is going nuts, with so many great bourbons being sought out bootlegging still has a place after nearly 200 years.
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