How Prohibition Made Soda the King of Beverages

A new book by author Tristan Donovan called Fizz: How Soda Shook Up The World was excerpted this week in the Atlantic, and he argues that Coca-Cola has the 1920’s Prohibition movement to thank f...
How Prohibition Made Soda the King of Beverages
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  • A new book by author Tristan Donovan called Fizz: How Soda Shook Up The World was excerpted this week in the Atlantic, and he argues that Coca-Cola has the 1920’s Prohibition movement to thank for its rise to glory.

    As most history buffs will tell you, the 1919 enactment of the Volstead Act (a product of the Temperance Union combined with the Anti-Saloon League) ushered the United States into an era of alcohol prohibition. Shortly after it was passed, the pharmacy/drug store became the first stop on the road to getting hammered.

    Donovan writes that “in 1921 alone, pharmacists withdrew more than eight million gallons of medicinal whiskey from federal warehouses, twenty times the amount they dispensed before Prohibition.”

    Prohibition agents quickly got wise to the scheme, and “suspect medicine” started being rapidly seized from local pharmacies. Donovan notes one 1929 raid in Meridian, MS that netted the feds a soda fountain liquor ring after reports of young men and women “getting hilarious” while drinking Coca-Cola.

    The fountains in question dispensed a mixture of Coke and something called “Jake,” a dangerous black-market alcohol concoction. Jake was made from fermented Jamaican ginger plants, but it contained a highly toxic adulterant that was supposed to fool the feds. After a couple weeks of selling Jake-laced cola, between 15,000 and 100,000 people were rendered impotent or crippled for life from the toxic effects (the way these people walked would be referred to as “Jake leg”).

    As any teenager could tell you, when adults say you shouldn’t have something, one often simply wants the forbidden fruit that much more. The Jazz Age appeal of drinking saw hundreds of people of both sexes and all ages booze their way through Prohibition using mixed drinks and chasers, which were uncommon until alcohol was illegal.

    Donovan wrote, “In speakeasies they would order “set ups” of cracked ice and ginger ale or club soda into which they could discreetly slip a measure of bathtub spirit from their handy and oh-so-chichi hip flasks. Cola may have overtaken ginger ale as America’s favorite fizz by the dawn of the Jazz Age, but the appeal of the latter as a mixer drove its sales to new highs in the 1920s.”

    Nobody knows exactly where ginger ale came from, but most attribute its origins to an American apothecary named Dr. Thomas Cantrell, who popularized a sweet, dark, yeast-fermented drink around 1850. A second beverage inspired by Cantrell’s, Vernor’s 1866 ginger ale, had created a reputation for being so fizzy that its consumers often sneezed. Vernor’s still exists today as America’s oldest soda brand.

    Neither of their ginger ales held a candle to the third brand, none other than Canada Dry. Created by a Canadian pharmacist named John McLaughlin, he promoted his ale as “the champagne of ginger ales” at the suggestion of his wife.

    Ginger ale became one of the most popular mixers. Indeed, it became so popular that in 1923, two businessmen from either side of the Canada-U.S. border decided to buy his business for a million in cash. They directly appealed their business to Prohibition-era drinkers, and in under 4 years, sales of 1.7 million bottles turned into 1926’s 50 million. Surveys of the era suggested three out of four ginger ale bottles were used by alcohol drinkers to mask the taste of bootleg liquor.

    None of the ginger ales, however, could compare with the empire that would become Coca-Cola. If you want to read more about the fantastic journey of soda pop, which includes many curious anecdotes about the beginnings of the Coca-Cola corporation’s modern advertising campaign, you should check it out here.

    [Image via Wikimedia Commons]

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