In The Name Of Temperance

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In addition to the federal constitutional amendment prohibiting the manufacture, sale, and possession of intoxicating spirits in the 1920s, a number of states enacted their own supplementary statutes. Many of them were strange and counterproductive to the original intent.

Take that bastion of common sense, South Carolina, for example.

In 1892, prohibitionists in Columbia had won a non-binding referendum calling for a ban on alcohol. The legislature then had tried to find a happy-medium between free-flowing booze and an outright drought. It subsequently created what came to be known as the South Carolina Dispensary, a government-owned and operated monopoly on alcohol sales – similar to today’s ABC stores. The dispensary system operated for about twenty years before the prohibition movement gained enough steam to end sales of liquor in the state altogether, and finally throughout the nation.

But even after federal prohibition ended in the 1930s, South Carolina retained its earlier and very restrictive approach. It still banned alcohol sales in restaurants as recently as the early 1970s.

Anyway, as with most laws, there are loopholes – in this case, BYOB. The law in effect in South Carolina starting in the 1930s prevented restaurant sales of alcohol, but patrons could bring their own. This lasted until 1973, when the restaurant owners’ lobby told the legislature that patrons drank way too much (and became rowdy in the dining establishments) because no one wanted to carry home half-filled bottles. So start chugging! The legislature, in its infinite wisdom, accordingly allowed restaurants to sell alcohol by the drink at last – but only if strictly pre-ordained amounts of hooch were used.

A 2004 article in USA Today explained, “South Carolina is the only state that does not allow bartenders to pour drinks from regular-sized bottles of liquor. Instead, for every drink, the bartenders have to open a 1.7-ounce bottle of spirits like the ones served on airplanes.” You see, 1.7-ounces was the legislature’s strictly pre-ordained amount of booze. The rule, effectively, put a cap on the amount of liquor in each drink, since few bartenders were going to open a second mini-bottle in order to add more alcohol to a single drink at the same price, and few patrons were willing to pony up additional cash for a second bottle in the same drink.

But the law also put a de facto minimum on the amount of alcohol used per drink. As bartenders had to open a new bottle for every drink, they made sure to use all of it… I mean, why skimp on the rotgut if it’s otherwise going down the drain?

The net result was that mixed drinks in the Palmetto State were all made with 1.7 ounces of firewater, or a multiple of that. Not more, not less. Critics of this foolishness pointed out that the drinks served in all other states almost always contained less than 1.7 ounces of the good stuff. In effect, South Carolina’s restrictions on free-flowing alcohol resulted in more tipple per drink, earning the state the reputation of having the strongest highballs in the nation… all in the name of temperance.

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One thought on “In The Name Of Temperance

  1. Until 1967, liquor by the drink was illegal in Nashville, TN. There were, nonetheless, several places where the law was loosely applied, if at all. Any club on Printer’s Alley was pretty much flouting the law. Perhaps the most quietly notorious (oxymoron recognized) restaurant where one could buy a drink was Jimmy Kelly’s. It was (and still is) very popular with legislators and prominent citizens, and raids – if they occurred at all – were announced beforehand to give the management time to be sure everything was on the up-and-up.

    As an aside, the Knights of Columbus club, only a few blocks from Jimmy Kelley’s, had a back room where illegal gambling flourished. It was also frequented by high mucky-mucks, and immune from law enforcement.

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