In the early 1920s, family moonshiners were among countless small and big-time illegal alcohol producers during Prohibition. Some of these moms and pops bottled their own liquor at home. They used a small still to ferment a “mash” from corn sugar, or fruit, beets, even potato peels to produce 200-proof alcohol, then mix it with glycerin and a key ingredient, a touch of juniper oil as a flavoring. To turn this highly potent liquid into a rank “gin,” they needed to water it down by half. But their bottles often were too tall to fit under the spigot in the kitchen sink, so they used the one in the bathtub.
But few could tolerate the bad taste of this “bathtub gin.” Bartenders in speakeasies blended ounces of it with various mixers from bitters to soda pop, juices and fruit garnishes, to hide the flavor of the poorly made alcohol. While mixed drinks certainly predated Prohibition (the origins of the rum drink “Mojito” may date back to the 16th century), they were necessary during Prohibition. The Prohibition Era’s speakeasies made the cocktail fashionable.
In large cities and rural areas, from basements and attics to farms and remote hills and forests across America, moonshiners and other bootleggers made it virtually impossible for Prohibition Bureau agents to enforce the Volstead Act’s national ban on making and distributing liquor. The bureau seized almost 697,000 stills nationwide from 1921 to 1925. From mid-1928 to mid-1929 alone, the feds confiscated 11,416 stills, 15,700 distilleries and 1.1 million gallons of alcohol. The bigger stills were known to churn out five gallons of alcohol in only eight minutes. Commercial stills in New York could put out 50 to 100 gallons a day at a cost of 50 cents per gallon and sell each one for $3 to $12. By 1930, the U.S. government estimated that smuggling foreign-made liquor into the country was a $3 billion industry ($41 billion in 2016).
Grocery and hardware stores legally sold a laundry list of what home distillers and beer brewers needed – the gallon stills, bottles, malt syrup, corn sugar, corn syrup, hops, yeast and bottle cappers. Americans, based on Prohibition Bureau estimates, brewed 700 million gallons of homemade beer in 1929. Chain grocery markets such as Kroger and A&P sold the popular beer-making ingredient malt syrup in cans. By 1927, national production of malt syrup hit nearly 888 million pounds – enough to make more than six billion pints of homemade beer.
KNOXVILLE'S OWN SPEAKEASY!
Knoxville’s Hidden Gem:
A Sleek, Sophisticated, & Elusive Speakeasy:
Peter Kern Library | 407 Union Ave, Knoxville, TN 37902
Maybe you’ve heard of us... tucked inside of the historic Kern Building, behind the Oliver Hotel lobby, sits our gem of a speakeasy, The Peter Kern Library.
Outside of our well-crafted classic cocktails and talented staff, we are known for being Knoxville’s one and only speakeasy. Once, this secret spot was known only to the most plugged-in locals and guests but, these days, Knoxville’s finest line up in the alley to gain entrance.